While playing the pipe organs in cathedrals or churches with huge echo/reverberation, I noticed that along with the delay/latency (when the pipes are not close enough to the ears) comes the second problem: the reverberation.

How does the organist deal with that?

In my experience I noticed that if I slow down the tempo, that helps a little bit, but I have the feeling that is not enough and may not work always.

On YouTube I noticed an organist was shortening the note durations (playing them as staccato), making the sound a bit clearer.

Are there any specific techniques to make the melody clearer while playing in such big cathedrals? Could it be that in the place designed for the public the sound is clearer than where the organist plays?

2 Answers 2


Organists are one of the very few groups of musicians who have to learn not to listen to what they are playing, because (except for situations where a detached playing console is in the middle of the building) what they hear while playing has no resemblance to what the audience is hearing.

Even with a relatively small pipe organ with the console "built in" to the instrument, what the organist hears is heavily muffled by the structure of the organ case (which is designed to project the sound over his/her head!) and the tonal balance of different stops will be distorted by their different physical locations in the instrument.

If you are faced with an unfamiliar instrument, one option is simply to listen to someone else playing, from the audience's position. At least with modern communication technology like cellphones, you don't have to try to shout instructions to each other over the noise of the instrument!

The technical solutions to the problem are mainly articulation and registration. If you ensure the frequency spectrum if the "melody" and "accompaniment" are sufficiently different, the melody will be heard as such. This is actually a similar technical problem to mixing recorded music.

The non-technical solution is to choose your music carefully. Specifically, music written by composers who were also organists is more likely to work than arrangements of non-organ music made by non-organists. Whatever period of music you choose, Bach, Couperin, Mendelssohn, Franck, Widor, Messiaen, etc wrote "organ music that works" - and often is very hard to arrange successfully for any other medium.

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    However, arrangements of non-organ music by organists may work. Some of the Englishman Edwin Lemare's arrangements are rather good (if fiendishly difficult!) May 15, 2019 at 23:30
  • and to some extent, if the room acoustics are rotten, you and the audience are stuck with the results :-( . May 16, 2019 at 13:13

The tempo is adjusted to the acoustics of the room - faster for a dry room, slower in a wet (resonant) acoustic. Articulation helps - and a good set of reeds, which are extravagantly deployed in cathedral and basilica instruments.

In English cathedrals, the organ is frequently on the 'screen' separating nave from the choir, essentially placing the organ in the middle of the room. Oftentimes, when the organ is in (or adjacent to) the choir, the organ might have a chamber that speaks directly into the nave, or there might be an antiphonal division to assist a congregation.

Now consider the 'state trumpet,' the party horns, at the back of the immense acoustic of the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in NY - almost a full city block away from the choir! It takes about half a second for the sound at the back to propagate to the front.

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