update: 12 July, 2011

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Technische uitleg aan de hand van instrumenten

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The keys of keyboard instruments

The reed organ or harmonium shares the keyboard lay out with other instruments. Most of the time this lay out is referred to as "piano keyboard". In historical sense not a logical choice. The keyboard in itself is much, much older than the piano. Yet we refer to the piano, due to pitch. Because on organ and reed organ / harmonium we can sound different pitches on one key, a property not available in the piano. A piano key can only sound one pitch. Referring to the organ the piano key sounds at 8' pitch.

In an more and more "globalizing" world, uniformity in exact systems is way behind on global development.
Ask any pianist or organist to play "Frère Jacques" in C major with only one finger and to name the key to start with. The answer will be clear in the European [*]system, and both note and octave are given. The answer is c1.
* Meant is: Continental-Europe.

Asking the same to Anglo-Saxon organists can result in hearing five (or even more) different answers. Even though they all start at the same key!


Eén octaaf

The fact that Anglo-Saxon answers deviate from an European answer is due to the fact that the European system is exact. Opposed to that the Anglo-Saxon world uses multiple systems. Even in mixed varieties. Systems that are not even compatible or exchangeable.

Of course it is only a dream to expect a system accepted and in use all around the globe.

Hence on this page some pictures and a table to compare systems.

Uitleg klavieren


The above picture is a piano keyboard of 88 keys, containing 7 1/3 octaves.
Keyboards of organs, harmoniums and reed organs are smaller in size. Historic organs are fitted with keyboards of 4 octaves, modern organs have keyboards of 4,5 octaves. (C-f3) Electronic organs and modern American pipe-organs have 5 octaves (C-c4).

In harmonium and reed organ we see two types of 5 octave keyboards. Suction instruments have a keyboard ranging from FF - f3, harmonium keyboards are C-c4.

In the European system the keys are named with a geographical name, i.e. the key to press. In this name are both the pitch of the tone and the octave name.

This is comparable to sheet music or score: On paper is not the pitch, but the key to play. Additional information in the score, like "Great 16'" will designate the composers idea of sounding pitch.

Because of all the differences globally below we present a comparative matrix of known systems.

A piano with 88 keys starts at A0/Sub contra A (so there are only three notes in the 0 octave: A, A# en B). The keyboard stops at C8 / c5. The piano keyboard has been used as a starting point for comparison.

The matrix starts at the top with the lowest octave. Each octave is named with the lowest key up to the highest key. Where the highest key is also the lowest key of the next following octave.

Octave names in keyboards at 8' pitch

Octave   Piano  
Organ & Harmonium
        European system       Anglo-Saxon I   Anglo-Saxon II   American       English
  Deutsch &
                (Sumner)   (Norman)   Fisk
  Fisk II
  most widely spread USA    

base: key name

base: sounding note/pitch
octave name
  A0 - C1   *   Sub contra   (CCCCC 32')               CCCC 32'   Sub-Kontra Oktave
  C1-C2   C-1 - C Contra   (CCCC 16')               CCC 16'   Kontra-Oktave
  C2-C3   C-c Groot   CCC   CC   CC   CC    ( C1)   CC 8'   Große Oktave
  C3-C4   c-c' Klein   CC/Tenor C   C (Tenor C)   c0   C    (C 13)   C 4'   Kleine Oktave
  C4-C5   c'- c'' 1 gestreept   C / Middle C   c1 (Middle C)   c1   c0   (c 25)   c1 2'   Eingestrichene Oktave
  C5-C6   c'' - c''' 2 gestreept   -   c2 (Treble C)   c2   c1   (c 37   c2 1'   Zweigestrichene Oktave
  C6-C7   c''' - c'''' 3 gestreept   -   c3 (High C)   c3   c2   (c 49)   c3 1/2'   Driegestrichene Oktave
  C7-C8   c'''' - c''''' 4 gestreept   -   c4 (Top C)   c4   c3   (c 61)   c4 1/4'   Viergestrichene Okave
  C8   c'''''   5 gestreept                       Fünfgestrichene Oktave

* = Shown as a picture, subscript does not work in Dreamweaver.

The yellow printed text refer to European system for designating keys on organ keyboards.

Dean Eckmann, former employee at Fisk Organ Building told me that Fisk uses the system shown in in the last column.
When working on an organ in a big reverberant church, they use "Fisk-speak" to make clear - standing in the nave - what key /note to play. Shouting loud "Play me a Charlie 2 of the 16' foot", resulted in pressing the c2 key with the 16; stop. Also "Play Double George of the 32', means press G-groot using the 32' stop.

Anecdotal, told by a Fisk pipe maker. Charlie Fisk was a military before becmong an organ builder. [ Does that mean he fitted a home pipe organ of 5 stops with a Trompeta Batalla :-) ] Due to his previous life he he used the "Fisk speak" using the old 1941-1956 phonetic and 1943-1956 RAF phonetic versions of what now is the NATO phonetic:

A = Able, B = Baker, C=Charlie, D = Dog, E= Easy, F= Fox, G = George

NATO now:

A = Alpha, B = Bravo, C = Charlie, D= Delta, E= Echo, F= Foxtrot, G= Golf

"The Organ. Its evolution, principles of construction and use"

William Leslie Sumner
Macdonald, 1962 (3e druk)
544 pag. hardback, out of print



Sumner's book "The Organ"



(Dr) William Leslie Sumner was an organ enthusiast, physics teacher and
eventually lecturer at the University of Nottingham (I think). His book
"The Organ" (MacDonald & Co) ran to several editions. (info supplied by Dr. Brian Styles)


Boek Norman  

The organ today

Herbert Norman and H. John Norman
Publisher: London, Barrie & Rockliff, 1966.
xi + 212 p. illus., 16 plates, tables, diagrs. 23 cm.

The Oxford Companion to Music

By Percy Alfred Scholes
Contributor John Owen Ward
Edition: 10
Published by Oxford University Press, 1970
ISBN 0193113066, 9780193113060
1250 pages

Oxford Companion to Music 10th edition

J.J. Seidel, 1852

The Organ and its construction

Robert Allan on his web site of harmoniums in England used the Norman method:

For pitch notation used throughout this study, we defer to Percy Scholes' Oxford Companion to Music [92]. This states that "old English organ pitch notation'' has CC=8', C=4', c=2', c'=1', c''=6'', and so on. This is similar to modern English organ builders' notation, but slightly different to the American notation.

We will therefore use the convention that the bottom key of a modern 61 key organ manual of normal 8' pitch is referred to as CC, middle c is c and the top key is c3 or c'''. It could be argued that some departments (in particular the pedals) are not based on 8' but on 16' pitch and so on, but we shall also refer to the bottom pedal as CC as it typically pulls down the lowest CC manual key when couplers are in use.
[92] Percy A. Scholes Oxford Companion to Music Tenth Edition (OUP, 1970) SBN 19 311306 6

Link to Robert's explanation

Tony Newnham also pointed out to me that some English Organ builders have a system not shown in the matrix. The bottom C on the keyboard is named C1. The next C is C13. And so on...
This seems to me to be a system only based on technical view for a builder. Hardly usable for playing the organ.

Thanks to Dean Eckmann, Tony Newnham, Robert Allan and Brian Styles for their contributions to this page.

Keyboard size in history

From the book 'Faszination Klavier' 300 Jahre Pianofortebau in Deutschland' I took a diagram showing the development of the keyboard size in time.

Keyboard Sizes in time

Graf = Conrad Graf (1782-1851), Viennese/south german school

The relation between piano tone and pipelength in organs

The normal pitch of a tone is most referred to ‘eight feet’. The pitch of a piano is the same pitch as an 8 foot pipe. Not everyone does understand the relation between pipelength and pitch. Hence a diagram to understand it better.
Normal pitch is 8 foot, one octave lower is 16 foot, hence double the length. An octave higher is 4 foot, hence halve the length. In all cases this refers to a pipe that is open at the top side. When the top op the pipe is closed (or almost closed) the pitch will go down one octave. The word closed is in organs referred to as ‘stopped’. The result: A stopped pipe only needs half the length of an open pipe to sound the same pitch. So there is always a relation of 2. Doubled or halved.

Fifth’s does not have a relation of 2, but (roughly) 1.5 In European style these pipelenghts are most of the time referred to a rounded number, in thirds of an octave, like 2-2/3, 1-1/3.

Then there are Tierces, where the relations is measured in fifth parts of an octave like in 1-3/5, 3-1/5 etc.

More exotic pitches like nones and septimes are not shown in the diagram.
Below is the diagram showing pipelenghts.  Some of the lengths shown have never been built, and are theoretical lengths.

Pipelengths in organs

The blue bar is the actual lenght in feet, in red the length in meters

To see a full screen version of the images, click the link to an acrobat file.





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