Earth, Wind and Fire: The Elemental Mechanics of Pipe Organs | Nashville Public Radio

Earth, Wind and Fire: The Elemental Mechanics of Pipe Organs

Jul 13, 2018

Chances are, you've heard one. From the pages of J.S. Bach's preludes and fugues, to circus big tops and churches on Sunday mornings, the pipe organ's distinct timbre has served as the soundtrack to a wide variety of cultural activities and rituals.

Since the instrument's first iteration appeared in the 3rd century B.C., organ-makers have tinkered with finding ways for the instrument to produce sound — a process that includes the control of pressurized air through various-sized pipes. Here's a look at how, throughout history, mankind has worked to harness nature's elements, all in the name of producing that glorious organ sound. 


The essential element needed for a pipe organ to produce sound is air, or wind, as it's known when it rings through the intrument's pipes. How that air is compressed can vary. In the days of J.S. Bach, air was hand pumped through the instrument with large bellows, as pictured below. Today, this process is mechanized with more modernized blowers and air reservoirs. 

For a more in-depth look at how this kind of pipe organ works, check out this video from The Discovery Channel: 


Before the invention of bellows, early pipe organs relied on water cisterns to control wind pressure. This is precisely why the ancient predecessor of the pipe organ, invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C., was known as a hydraulis.

The instrument quickly became a favorite in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, and when Byzantine Emperor Constantine V sent one as a gift to the King of France in 757, it sparked the spread of organs throughout Europe. 

A figurine from the 1st century B.C. displayed at the Louvre Museum shows musicians playing a salpinx (trumpet) and a hydraulis.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Another type of water organ relies on a natural source of moving water (such as a waterfall) to produce airflow. The High Tide Organ in Blackpool, England is a nearly 50 ft. sculpture with 18 pipes attached to a seawall. As the tide moves in and pushes air through the pipes, the organ sounds. 

Then there's water in another form: steam. The calliope (or steam organ) arose in the 19th century, during the height of the Industrial Revolution and the age of steam. It wasn't long before the steam used to power trains and boats was also used to power a musical instrument, and it was no accident that calliopes were first found in steam-powered riverboats and travelling circuses. 

You can still hear a true repleca calliope on the Steamboat Natchez in New Orleans, one of only four Steamboats operating on the Mississippi River with the instrument. And while Nashville's General Jackson was built to resemble an old steam-powered riverboat, it is both diesel-powered and calliope-less. 


One of Kastner's pyrophones, photographed c. 1886
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Feast your eyes upon the pyrophone (it also has several other intense names, like "flame organ" and "explosion calliope"), first invented by physicist and musician Georges Frédéric Eugène Kastner around 1870. Similar to a standard pipe organ, the pyrophone has cylindrical tubes cut to specified lengths, only made of glass. The instrument produces noise through a process of controlled explosions between hydrogen flames, the oxygen in the air of each tube, and the vibration of the glass cylinders. Sounds safe! 

While some adventurous modern performers have dabbled in building their own pyrophones, the instrument is rare today, likely due to the fact that its pitch accuracy is iffy, at best, and well, that whole fire and explosion thing. 


This organ is an honorable mention, since without traditional pipes, it doesn't technically fall into the pipe organ category. Instead, the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia, uses ancient stalactite formations to make music.

When a player presses a key in on the organ's manual, an electrical impulse is sent to a rubber mallet that gently taps a selected stalactite, causing it to vibrate and produce a musical tone. That tone is then amplified with a magnetic pickup and speakers. 

The intsrument was constructed over a period of three years in the 1950s by Leland W. Sprinkle, who tapped over 3,000 stalactite formations over an area of approximately 3.5 acres to find just the right pitches. 

The organ has been featured in special concerts, weddings and a number of televisions shows, including Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

Need more pipe organ in your life? Tune in Sunday mornings at 7AM to 91Classical for American Public Media's Pipedreams

And just for good measure, here's Nashville organ icon Wilma Jensen performing on Pipedreams Live in 2013: