How do you know which keyboard (manual) to play on a pipe organ?

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You know those big old pipe organs with 3 or more sets of keyboards? How does the organist know which one to play? I have sometimes seen where if you press a key on one manual, it depresses the same note on other ones simultaneously. What’s up with that?

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The manuals (keyboards) on the organ are just different tools. Different sets of pipes can be made to sound when a certain manual is played, and those sets usually are considered to live on a certain manual if their stop is pulled, but most can be made to sound from any manual including the pedal board if the need arises.

Playing the organ requires constant preparation for what comes next. If you’re in the middle of playing a certain registration of pipes on one manual and need to play a section of music that sounds differently you would switch to another manual for that section having already prepared the registration for both manuals before starting (or literally in the middle of playing pulling stops and pressing buttons behind the scenes with whatever appendage you have available).

This constant voicing and registration is the true genius and magic of an organist. It’s bonkers.

Different organs use different mechanisms, mechanical or electrical or electeo-pneumatic or black magic powered by lost souls, to open the pipes so they can sound. Your example of a key pressed on one manual pulling down a key elsewhere is a mechanical example. The registration on the played manual has more pipes sounding than the affected manual. The affected manual on this organ is the only place that certain ranks of pipes can possibly be played. So to combine the two ranks into one sounds from a different manual you must have mechanical action inside the console that literally pulls down a separate key. This can require an exceptional amount of pressure from the organist to accomplish.

All organs are kind of ridiculously different. Some modern composers will specify exactly what they want. Sometimes you have to figure out the general gist of what the composer wanted. Sometimes you say to hell with all that I’m doing what I want.

There are four main types of pipes. All (I’m pretty sure all) pipe ranks fall within these categories so sometimes just the categories are specified. Past that the length of the pipe might be specified (the length of the lowest sounding pipe in the rank). Longer pipes are lower sounding notes, shorter pipes are higher sounding. So each key on a manual does not have to be inherently high or low sounding. You can control literally everything, depending on what’s available to you with a specific organ.

The complexity of what note sounds where and why is vast. But the options available make it fun.

This is all based on four years of organ lessons in college. I am by no means a professional, and the information professional organists acquire and use is deserving of the utmost awe and respect. They are incredible