Organ vs. Piano: Choosing Your Liturgical Accompaniment

Joseph D'Amico

Jun 13, 2022

When comparing the organ vs. piano for liturgical accompaniment and support, there are many important factors to consider. Both organs and pianos are keyboard instruments, but there are several key differences between the organ and the piano. 

I originally started working with a parish as a pianist, and eventually transitioned to playing the organ. Because of my experience, I have developed a good sense of the advantages and drawbacks of both instruments in a liturgical setting. I will admit that I am partial to the organ, as is the Church. However, the piano does certain things better, and both instruments have their place. 

Ideally, all churches would have access to both pianos and organs, but this may not be realistic. In this article, you’ll find many of the advantages and disadvantages of the piano vs. organ in a liturgical setting, especially if you must choose one instrument. 

Advantages of the Piano in a Liturgical Setting

Although not the ideal instrument for the Church, the piano is a realistic option, especially considering how many churches already have access to one. The piano has a few advantages over the organ that are worth mentioning. 

  • Pianos are much less expensive. The piano is much less complicated and generally much less expensive to acquire and maintain compared to the organ, although this may be less true if you are considering a high end grand piano, such as a Steinway piano. 

  • Pianists are much easier to find. There are many more piano players than organ players, which makes hiring a skilled musician much less difficult. The piano requires a much more generalized skillset compared to the organ, which makes the piano a much more accessible option. Additionally, the piano is significantly less complicated, making performance errors less obvious and easier to avoid. 

  • Pianos are ideal for leading choir rehearsals. The piano is especially well suited to helping warm up voices or teaching choral parts. Choirs can easily follow the clear and percussive nature of the piano. Even if the pianist demonstrates multiple parts at once, singers generally have an easier time picking out their part with a piano. 

  • Pianos are effective at supporting small choirs and children’s choirs.  Sometimes, even the softest stops on an organ can still overpower a very small choir without the aid of microphones. This is especially true when working with children. The piano can be more effective in this situation. 

Disadvantages of the Piano in a Liturgical Setting

Many disadvantages of using the piano can be accommodated by playing in a tasteful manner or choosing appropriate repertoire. With that said, one still must consider the inherent effect of using the piano in a liturgical setting. 

  • The percussive sound of the piano is not the best for liturgy. One of the most obvious issues with the piano is the percussive nature of the sound and its effect on singers. This sound comes from hammers striking a string when a piano key is pressed. The sound is not sustained in the same way that a pipe organ is (even with sustain pedals). Instead, the sound is “front loaded” with a strong attack and an eventual decay. This makes the piano much more comparable to something like a drum. The human voice simply does not work this way. 

  • Pianos have difficulty encouraging legato singing. Although many piano players may have no difficulty shaping a series of musical notes in a beautiful line on the piano, this doesn't always translate well to singers. This results in difficulty when trying to sustain a legato line. Singers being led by the piano often think of each note as a pulse and sing a series of strong pulses that feel very vertical instead of horizontal. 

  • Sacred piano repertoire is lacking. The nature of the repertoire available to the piano is much less suited to liturgy, especially when compared to the organ. Much of it has been written for the concert hall, not for worship. Avoiding secular music can be difficult for this reason. Additionally, the presence of a piano sound in the Liturgy conveys a sense of popular culture that walks a fine line between being acceptable or not. 

  • Pianos can’t fill a church like an organ can. Both the acoustic piano and digital pianos are much less effective at filling a space compared to church organs, even with the aid of microphones. Upright pianos are particularly ineffective at filling the space in a church. This is a key difference between the instruments that must be considered. The pipe organ speaks as a symphony of sounds, with sustained notes above and below where the congregation sings. The piano is simply unable to replicate this with its clean percussive but decaying notes. 

  • Pianos are much less dynamic compared to organs. Acoustic pianos in particular have no ability to vary the sound according to changing liturgical seasons. When using the piano, one can still accommodate the changing seasons, but only through musical settings and repertoire selections (and not the sound itself). 

How to Use the Piano Effectively 

To use the piano effectively, play in a way that encourages singing and supports singers without leading them too obviously. Additionally, use the piano for choir rehearsals and warmups. You may wish, though, to have parts demonstrated more often with the voice instead of the piano in order to encourage legato singing. 

When accompanying, especially with chant, you should try to minimize the presence of the piano and use it for gentle support. Try softening up the touch and avoid rearticulating the same pitch. You may also want to engage the una corda pedal frequently. The piano is great for keeping singers on pitch and guiding them through various musical ideas but it can easily impose itself upon singers, which can be a challenge in a liturgical setting. Whenever possible, try to use the voice to demonstrate rather than the piano. When it comes to chant accompaniment especially, less is more. 

Also, if your church has a digital piano, you may have access to a sound effect that can somewhat replicate the way that organs sound. Although this cannot replace the need for an organ, it can sometimes be more effective than the sound of a piano for certain applications, even if the sound quality isn't great. 

Organ Advantages in the Liturgy

The pipe organ, often referred to as the "King of Musical Instruments'' by the Church, has certainly earned its reputation as the preferred musical instrument for liturgy. This is due to the way organs sound and function, both as a reflection of and support to the role of the voice in the liturgy.

  • The organ naturally supports the voice. The pipe organ by its nature emulates the sound of the human voice and is naturally equipped to support it. The organ produces sound with pressurized air, which is in part how we produce sound when we speak or sing. “Of all the sounds of which human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are capable, voice is the most privileged and fundamental. Musical instruments in the Liturgy are best understood as an extension of and support to the primary liturgical instrument, which is the human voice” (Sing to the Lord, no. 86).

  • The organ can both lead and support, depending on registration and playing style. Certain stops allow an organ player to support a congregation from below or above their pitch (or both!) and can fill the church with a splendorous sound. The organ can also use softer stops to achieve a gentler support, perfect for chant accompaniment, which can keep singers on pitch without an imposing presence. 

  • There is a large amount of suitable repertoire available for the pipe organ. Much of this repertoire was composed specifically for various feasts and texts, which allows the organ to support the occasion of the day with relative ease.

  • The organ has a huge dynamic range, which can accommodate the various seasons and feast days of the Church. Registrations can be significantly scaled back to support the liturgy in more penitential seasons or scaled up for high feast days. Changing the registration can completely change the sound. There is nothing like the sound of a full organ on Easter Sunday!

Disadvantages of the Organ in Liturgy

Although the organ can be great at supporting liturgical song, it comes with some drawbacks. These things can be dealt with, but they are important to consider when comparing the organ vs. piano in the liturgy. 

  • Church organs can be expensive and complicated to install. If your church is considering the purchase of an organ, know that there can be a significant cost involved, especially if you are considering a traditional pipe organ. Even modest electronic organs may be out of reach for some churches. In the future, this will likely be less of an issue, as technology in digital organs becomes cheaper and more advanced. 

  • Organists are much harder to find than pianists. There are many differences between playing the piano and playing an organ. Organists require a more specialized skill set, which grows stronger from  experience with the liturgy. With this said, it is definitely possible to learn organ and even become proficient at playing organ, which is what I ended up doing. I should also mention that it is very possible to learn how to play while on the job, which is also something that I did. 

  • Organs are much more complicated to use correctly than pianos. If the organist is not particularly skilled, it may be obvious due to the nature of the organ and how prominent it can be in the church. If the organ is too soft, congregational singing won't be well supported. If the organ is too loud, congregational singing may be discouraged and oppressed. Organists must possess strong knowledge of registrations to use the organ effectively. 

  • Organs aren't as effective at leading choir rehearsals, especially with volunteer singers. Organs do not have a clear and percussive sound like the piano, and the sound usually will emanate from a distant place in the church. As a result, many singers (especially men) have a tough time hearing their part. Many prefer pianos to lead choir rehearsals for this reason. 

  • Certain stops or even the volume of the organ tends to irritate or offend some parishioners. The best way to deal with this is to select tasteful repertoire and registrations and to encourage sensitive parishioners to avoid sitting too close to the organ. 

How to Use the Organ Effectively 

The most important element to consider when using the organ in a liturgical environment is the person actually playing the organ. This person needs to know what they are doing or be training to develop competence on the organ. Otherwise, much can go wrong. 

When accompanying chant, you may wish to use simpler foundational registrations (softer flutes and principles) to avoid overpowering the voices. It may also be helpful to leave out any pedal when working with small choirs. When it’s time to accompany the congregation, you’ll find the pedal and some of the bigger registrations especially helpful. 

Lastly, take advantage of the wealth of repertoire, along with the wide range of registrations available to the organ. Use trumpets at Easter. Recall familiar carols during Christmas. Pick repertoire based on Latin chant specific to certain occasions. This is a major advantage to having an organ! 

Final Considerations

Both organs and pianos are good and not so good at different things. It really makes sense to have both instruments available to a parish music program. With that said, if you are in a position to choose between the organ vs. piano for use in the liturgy, or if you are planning to purchase an instrument on behalf of your parish, you would be best served by choosing the organ. 

While the human voice is the primary liturgical instrument, and—strictly speaking—neither the piano nor the organ are needed for liturgical music, the organ offers many distinct advantages over the piano. For churches that do not have access to an organ or organist, the piano can be a suitable alternative as long as it is used in a way that supports the purpose of the liturgy.

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