Basic Registration

“There are three ways of changing dynamics at the organ: opening or closing the expression pedal or pedals, and adding or subtracting stops which may involve changing manuals.”1

After you finish Preparing the Organ, you are ready to decide which sounds you will use in an anthem. Based on our preparation of the Swell, Great, Pedal, and General pistons, you have two options available: changing stops by pressing pistons or changing manuals, and adjusting the Swell pedal.

Choosing Sounds

Having prepared divisional and general pistons, you should have a large dynamic range from which to choose. In pieces with dynamic markings, let these be your first guide toward choosing the appropriate volume. Take care not to play louder than the choir, however. Make sure that the congregation will be able to hear and understand what the choir is singing. H.W. Richards writes, “the organ part must be subservient to the voices, and accompany in the literal sense, letting them sound to full advantage, and never overpowering or obscuring their efforts.”2

Other factors will play a role in dynamics, including the size of the choir, style of the anthem, size and volume of the organ, size and acoustic of the room, which voice parts are singing, whether the organ is doubling choral parts or accompanying a soloist, and so on. Due to the large number of variables, and that some of them change from day to day, it is difficult to suggest concrete guidelines concerning registration. Since choirs, organs, and their architecture are so variable, what works in one place may prove unsuitable in another.

“The student of accompaniments has, moreover, the double difficulty to contend with, that different voices (individuals) and classes of voice (male or female) require different modes and degrees of support, in addition to the constant differences among the instruments themselves.”3

The organ almost never sounds the same to you while you are sitting at the console as it does to others. An organ’s layout and a room’s acoustics change how pipes are heard in different locations. Place a recording device away from your location so you have a better idea of what your registrations sound like elsewhere in the room. 

Familiarize yourself with the registrational practices of solo organ music in various European regions of this time period. A succinct introduction to this is in the fourth chapter of Organ Technique by Ritchie/Stauffer: “Organs, Repertory, and Registrations: Principal Schools.” This information helps provide context to the anthems you perform, and may influence how you will want to register them. Some general observations may be made, however.

Baroque and Classical Registrations

Choose simple, clear sounds for seventeenth and eighteenth century works. Janette Fishell puts it succinctly:

“Registrations are simpler, consisting of one- to three-stop combinations that emphasize clarity. Dynamics are terraced, with few gradual changes. You may change manuals and add or subtract stops for dynamic change, but do not use the swell box as this was foreign to the period. Do not use the céleste, but you may use the tremulant. (This is especially good with the Flute 8′.) Most stop changes should be simple and achieved by hand rather than by piston since organs of this period did not have pistons.”4

If the accompaniment in question was originally written for strings or some other instrumental combination, consider choosing registrations that imitate those in the original score. This will likely require you to research the full score as many score adaptations will not contain all of the information you need, and to secure a basic knowledge of the tone of the original instruments. Early string instruments, for instance, “would have had a transparent tone” that may sound more accurate on modern organs  by “use of mild string tone with light diapason tone.”5 

Romantic and Modern Registrations

For nineteenth and many twentieth-century anthems, treat the organ more like an orchestra. In the tab Preparing the Organ, Versions 1 and 3 of the Swell piston gradations are most appropriate for this style. John Stainer (1840–1901) writes, “The first thing to be learned in the accompanying of voices is the necessity for the predominance of eight-foot tone.”6 For our purposes, this will mean allowing the Swell 2 and Swell 3 pistons to be your default sounds. Janette Fishell suggests registering for homogeneity of sound that includes warm and sonorous combinations, and using gradual dynamic changes while maintaining a legato touch.7 Note that singers will sound louder when singing high, and softer when singing low. Adjust your registration and expression pedals accordingly.

Hymn Anthems

In choral settings of hymns, known as hymn anthems, change registration between stanzas much like you would while playing a congregational hymn. In the example below, the composer sets all three stanzas of music to exactly the same music. In such anthems, consider making subtle registration changes between stanzas; this will add variety and alleviate a potentially monotonous sound from the organ. While the volume doesn’t necessary need to change, try using different color families from the organ, such as a registration with all flutes, or all strings, or just one principal.

Hampton_Fairest Lord Jesus
Calvin Hampton, “Fairest Lord Jesus” (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1985), mm. 1–10.

Text Painting

Next, look for places where you would like a specific timbre such as a céleste or reed that you noted while Preparing for Rehearsal. These will not necessarily be noted by the composer. For example, consider the two phrases below, “Sweet messenger of rest” and “I hate the sins that made thee mourn,” from Charles V. Stanford’s (1852–1924) setting of O for a closer walk.8 Consider vocal and organ texture, vocal and organ range, and salient words in the text.

Stanford_O for a closer_p4
Charles V. Stanford, “O For a Closer Walk” (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1976), mm. 20–29.

Stanford chose to set the line, “Sweet messenger of rest,” apart from the surrounding lines of text. Notably, the number of vocal lines is reduced to one on the former line of text, and returns to four voices on the latter line of text. The number of voices in the organ goes from five to four during the first line, and remains at four thereafter. The reduction of voices from the third to the sixth measure in this example, combined with a descending range, creates a natural decrescendo from the organ as the choir sings of “rest.” Finally, consider salient words like sweet, rest, hate, and mourn. These are descriptive words that may warrant different treatment from the organist.

Try, for example, registering mm. 3–6 with a string celeste and m. 6 onward without the celeste. Consider adding another 8′ stop on m. 6 to highlight the dissonance created between the organ and soprano on the word “sins.” Sydney Nicholson suggests that “the tone quality should be constantly changing by almost imperceptible degrees” in order to “avoid monotony.”9 To hear what some of these ideas sound like, watch the video below:

Timing Changes

Registration changes should not be arbitrary; rather, let the sound of the organ change during meaningful points in the music. The best accompanists plan which beat or subdivision to press a piston as well, “making the color change an integral part of the music’s structure without interfering with the overall integrity of the phrase.”10 Changes will often occur between phrases, when a natural pause in the music allows you time to press a piston. When doing so, lift both hands and feet completely off of the keys before you press the piston. If you press a piston too early or too late, while some or all of the keys are still depressed, then the change will create “an effect of extreme untidiness.”11

In Stanford’s excerpt above, the best place to change sounds in m. 6 is between beats three and four because of the phrasing in the manuals. However, the pedal note needs to be held through the break in the manuals. Therefore, you will need to remove any couplers to the pedal before that break. Further, the organ will often “precede the choir in a dynamic or timbral change.”12

Mixtures and Reeds

Care should be taken not to overuse loud mixtures and piercing, powerful reeds in choral accompaniments. In general, reserve them for organ-only interludes and for grand finales after the choir stops singing. Should the music dictate full swell or some other loud sounds while the choir is singing, you will probably need to keep the swell box closed so as to not overshadow the choral sound. The use of Full Swell or Full Organ should rarely be used. “This effect, often with 16, 8, and 4 ft. reeds of aggressive quality, can at the right moment produce a real thrill, but these sounds are wearing to sensitive ears and should be reserved for very special climaxes.13 Note that the term full swell, as well as other many other directions for registrations, should be filtered through the lens of the particular instrument, choir, and environment in which you are accompanying.

Expression Pedals

Expression pedals operate a series of parallel shutters, like vertical blinds over a window, that encase the pipes of a particular organ division such as the Swell or Choir. Enclosed divisions may be referred to as “expressive manuals.” Sound travels outside of the enclosure, sometimes called a box, more easily and therefore with more volume when the shutters are open than when they are closed. When the shutters are open, the pipes of the division will sound louder; when closed, they sound softer. On a pipe organ, this is the only way to create a crescendo or decrescendo without adding or subtracting stops.

Due to their ability to control volume, expression pedals are indispensable to a great deal of choral accompaniments and may be used liberally on choral repertoire of the past two centuries.  They are typically not used expressively on music prior to the 19th century, though they can be set prior to a performance in order to produce the correct volume for the entire accompaniment.14

One method for learning how to use expression pedals is to practice playing the bass line of an anthem solely with the left foot while leaving the right food on the Swell pedal. Doing so immediately raises the question of how to play certain intervals like fourths and fifths legato with one foot. If you are unable to play large intervals legato with one foot, you have two options: first, play them non-legato while keeping the right foot on the expression pedal or, second, use the right foot to create the legato interval by removing it from the expression pedal. When adding a non-legato interval, take care that it does not interrupt a melodic phrase. Alternatively, maintaining a legato phrase in the pedals will result in a loss of control over the shutters, so the decision about which option to use will rely on your own interpretation of a musical passage.

Consider Stanford’s excerpt above in the first two measures of the second line. Stanford calls for a crescendo between the mid-point of the first measure to the mid-point of the second measure, which includes an ascending interval in the pedal of a perfect 4th. Organists who find it difficult to play a perfect 4th legato will either need to lift between the G and the C with their left foot while their right foot is on the Swell pedal, or take their right foot off of the Swell pedal in time to play the C. Some organists will be able to play a perfect 4th legato, as in the third example.

These three options are recorded below. (Please excuse the mechanical noise from the expression pedal.) Note that “this ‘left-footed’ technique is important in organ literature of the same period, as in the works of César Franck.”15

Masking Changes

Three ways to minimize a sudden increase or decrease in volume when changing registration include adjusting the expression pedal to compensate for the addition or subtraction of stops, using a secondary manual that maintains the same volume, and changing stops while the choir is singing.

First, you will find it useful in many scenarios to adjust the Swell pedal when changing pistons. Adjust the Swell shutters immediately before changing a piston. For example, when going from Swell 3 to Swell 4 on the Wolff, as recorded in Preparing the Organ, you will have noticed a fairly sudden increase in sound. This “bump,” as it may be called, can be mitigated by quickly closing the Swell box just before pressing Swell 4, and then opening the Swell box to reveal the total sound. The recording below demonstrates the difference by first changing from Swell 3 to Swell 4 without adjusting the Swell, and then by adjusting the Swell.

Second, dynamic changes can be mitigated by playing on a second manual such as the Great that does not change while the Swell changes. Using our two-manual scheme, this would mean playing on the Great with a soft stop such as the 8′ Bourdon and coupling the Swell to the Great. Change pistons on the Swell but not the Great. The Great will slightly mask the change if you adjust the Swell box, meaning that one manual will remain consistent while the other manual will become louder or softer. As with the previous recording, the difference is demonstrated here by first changing from Swell 3 to Swell 4 without adjusting the Swell, and then by adjusting the Swell.

This next recording features two more examples of adjusting the Swell box when going from Swell 3 to Swell 4, first without using the Great 8′ Bourdon and then masking the change with the Great 8′ Bourdon.

If you have two divisions under expression, you may use both expression pedals in alternation with one another to add or subtract stops more subtly. This technique is discussed in the Orchestration tab.

A riskier way to mask registration changes is by using the choir (that is the singers, not the Choir division on the organ). Changing sounds while the choir is singing can help lessen the degree to which those changes are perceived by the listener. Changing volume or timbre too drastically, however, can have the negative consequence of disrupting the choral phrase. If possible, ask a volunteer to sit elsewhere in the room to make sure your changes sound like you intend them to. Due to the voice’s natural tendency to crescendo as it ascends and decrescendo as it descends, consider adding stops when a vocal line ascends and subtracting stops at the vocal lines descends. 

As mentioned above, registration at its most basic involves the manipulation of stops and expression pedals. There are seemingly endless possibilities, however, within these two parameters. Learn what sounds are available on an organ and how those sounds relate to one another. Listen to how the organ and choir sound in the room. Study the music and talk to the conductor. This will make you an informed and musical accompanist. 

Further Reading

Coleman, Henry. “Service Playing.” In The Church Organist, 26–38. London: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Fishell, Janette. “Playing Accompaniments Musically and Idiomatically.” In But What Do I Do With My Feet?, 59–76. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Goode, Jack C. “Vocal and Choral Accompaniments.” In Pipe Organ Registration, 166–171. New York: Abingdon Press, 1964.

Ritchie, George H., and George B. Stauffer. “Organs, Repertory, and Registrations: Principal Schools.” In Organ Technique: Modern and Early, 258–315. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


  1. Janette Fishell, email message to author, July 26, 2018.
  2. H.W. Richards, The Organ Accompaniment of the Church Services (Boston: The Boston Music Co., 1911), 96.
  3. Dudley Buck, Illustrations in Choir Accompaniment (New York: G. Schirmer, 1888), 5.
  4. Janette Fishell, “Playing Accompaniments Musically and Idiomatically” in But What Do I Do With My Feet? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 62.
  5. Jack C. Goode, Pipe Organ Registration (New York: Abingdon Press, 1964), 167.
  6. John Stainer, Complete Organ Method, ed. F. Flaxington Harker, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003), 79.
  7. Janette Fishell, “From Accompanist to Conductor in Ninety Minutes: Fundamentals of Accompanying and Console Conducting” (working paper, Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University).
  8. Scottish Psalter (1635), O for a Closer Walk, arr. Charles V. Stanford, text by William Cowper (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1976).
  9. George Gardner and Sydney H. Nicholson, editors, A Manual of English Church Music (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1936), 144.
  10. Janette Fishell, email message to author, July 26, 2018.
  11. Henry Coleman, The Church Organist (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 36.
  12. Janette Fishell, email message to author, July 26, 2018.
  13. Henry Coleman, The Church Organist (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 38.”
  14. Janette Fishell, email message to author, July 26, 2018.
  15. Janette Fishell, email message to author, July 26, 2018.