How to Shop for a Church Organ

By: William Phemister

Choosing a new church organ is no small matter. Consider:

*The instruments you use in worship speak volumes about your style and desired outcomes.

*Lots of dollars will change hands.

*You’ve probably never done it before.

Just how, then, do you decide?


Initial questions such as these will help:

*Where did we come from and where are we going? A church whose music is rooted in a tradition of liturgy, elaborate hymn and choral accompaniments, and the glories of the classic organ repertoire will
need a more complex instrument than a church where simplicity is seen as a virtue.

*How do we deal with fads and trends? Once guitars arrived on the church scene in the sixties, the demise of traditional instruments was predicted. Not so. Guitars are still with us, but so are mighty organ strains. Key: Do we value variety and diversity?

*How do we like our singing served up? With thrills and chills and a lot of oomph, or merely as an accessory? Is the organist paid or volunteer, highly trained or barely capable?

*How big is the sanctuary? What size instrument will it take to fill it? Is the room good for music or for speaking, or that rare blend of the two?


Many churches ask a well-known organist from the area for advice. Suggestion: Let this person become a paid member of the organ committee, and offer to let him or her play the dedicatory recital.

Where to look:

*Check with a nearby college music department for a respected organ professor.

*Talk with the organist of a church with a music program you admire.


The kind of organ is the big question, and it involves factors of aesthetics, acoustics, maintenance, longevity, versatility, and size.

*Pipe or electronic? Neither a pipe nor an electronic organ is necessarily superior per se.


Some modern electronic instruments can fool even the best pipe-organ ears most of the time. Then again, some belong in a ballpark.

Some pipe organs can be disappointing because of design and voicing, while others can thrill listeners as no other instrument.

What kind of action? Not even all pipe organs work the same way.
Principal types:

*An electro-pnematic system makes contact between the key and the pipe through electrical means only. Advantage: Its console can be located some distance from the pipes and can be moved around as needs dictate.

*A mechanical or tracker system has each key directly connected to the device that lets air into the pipe. Advantage: This offers more subtle gradations of tonal attack and release and is preferred by some
organists. Disadvantage: Mechanical consoles are immobile and must usually be located adjacent to the pipe case.

Suggestion: Before choosing an organ, visit a number of churches with all kinds of instruments and architectural settings.


This decision depends greatly on what you want and can spend. Worth considering:

*Do you have a musician competent enough to play a mighty wonder?

*On the other hand, would a modest organ purchased mainly for its economy demoralize both organist and congregation?

Buying a new organ. Reality: A fine instrument will almost always cost more than you have, but it will be worth more than you expect. Here are some cost guidelines:

Electronic: Years ago, electronic instruments always cost less than a pipe organ. Not so today. Cost:

*A modest electronic organ may be found for $2,000.

*A good stock model may cost $20,000 to $60,000. Note: The cost per stop on a quality instrument can be less than $1,000. (A stop is a set of pipes-one per key on the keyboard-that has a distinctive sound, such as a trumpet.)

*Custom-designed instruments can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Pipe: New pipe organs vary considerably in price. Range:

*Low: $8,000 per stop.
*High: $20,000 per stop.
*Typical: $14,000 per stop. At this price, a 50-stop instrument would cost $700,000.

Alternative method: A good pipe organ will cost approximately one-third the price of the sanctuary itself. Example: That $700,000 organ would be just right for a $2.1 million sanctuary.

Buying a used organ. Buying a used instrument may be practical in some situations.

Electronic: Since electronic organs continue to acquire new technology, old ones become available at reasonable prices.


*The organ won’t necessarily sound the same in your building.

*It probably will need work to operate correctly.

*It will be outdated, and upgrading probably won’t be cost effective.

Pipe: Used pipe organs can be altered and added to significantly. You may be able to find an instrument for little more than the cost of hauling it away to your church.


*Putting the organ in shape for your needs can be very costly.

*Pipe organs usually are designed for a particular room. Result: A used organ may not fulfill expectations in a new setting.

Buying suggestions:

*Contact the Organ Clearing House (P.O. Box 104, Harrisville, NH 03450; 603/827-3055), a nonprofit organization dedicated to matching old organs with new owners.

*Check classified ads in The Diapason and The American Organist for used pipe and electronic organs. Recent issues had instruments from $2,000 to $38,000 with many “best offers” accepted.


Synthesizer compatibility. Make sure any new purchase includes the ability to use a synthesizer. Reason: The enhancement possibilities are almost limitless. Consider:

*A synthesizer can multiply the number of voices for the electronic organ, although without the top quality of a fine instrument.

*A synthesizer can supplement the pipe organ’s natural sounds with the sounds of many other instruments.

Necessary: You will need MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Reason: Built-in MIDI lets your instrument work together with a computer, synthesizer, sequencer, or other such device.

Recording ability. The ability to record a performance at the keyboard is another useful and practical option. Note: The recording device doesn’t capture the sounds but rather the action of the keyboard and
stops. It then “plays the organ” in playback mode.


*The playback is natural-via keyboard and pipes or electronics, not through recorded sound played through an amplifier.

*An organist can walk away from the keyboard and hear how the instrument sounds anywhere in the sanctuary. This can help fine-tune an organist’s musical technique.

You will probably regret it later if you scrimp on the project now. A little homework-and hard work-can produce an instrument that will both inspire the congregation and glorify God.

(The above material appeared in a January/February 1992 issue of Your Church.)

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