Notating music for piano or organ

Some obvious facts that add up to a problem:

  1. The piano and the organ are different. They sound different, work differently, and are played differently;
  2. Plenty of choirs sing to organ accompaniment;
  3. Plenty of other choirs sing to piano accompaniment.

From a commercial composer’s point of view, it’s often desirable for music intended to be accompanied on an organ to be playable on a piano as well, and vice versa. Although there are plenty of impossible cases like big organ masses which can’t be faked on a piano, you are cutting down on your potential buyers if your organ music sounds rubbish on a piano or can’t realistically be played on it.

My own Mass From Verbena is a case in point. It’s a mass setting using the texts of the recent 3rd translation of the Roman Catholic Missal, and it’s intended to be played on an organ. However, in deference to the reality in ordinary early 21st century Roman Catholic parishes, it’s for unison choir, and can be played on a piano in the absence of an organ or an organist – and there’s even an optional guitar part for when all else fails.

My noble intention was to write it – by which I mean notate it, not compose it – in such a way that it would make no difference whether you’re sitting at an organ or a piano. On the other hand, I didn’t want to compromise how the music would sound in order to end up with a piano-friendly organ part. And it turned out that it was quite hard to have both. There are a couple of places where a pianist simply can’t stretch his hands enough to cover all the notes asked for, and I’ve provided some small notes that allow him to take the pedal part up an octave in those cases. There are also times where the organ holds chords down for longer than they’ll sustain on a piano, and in those cases I’ve just left it to the pianist to decide what to do.

Is that a cop out? Maybe. I did try it with dotted ties, allowing the pianist to restrike chords in lieu of being able to sustain them the way an organ can, but there were two problems with it:

  1. It looked very messy, and you’d probably have had to look at it at least twice to see what was being asked for;
  2. It didn’t tell the pianist anything he couldn’t have worked out for himself at the time.

…and it’s that last point that’s been making me wonder if I’ve just been trying too hard at all this. Is it not better to leave the pianist to make the decisions that need to be made? After all, if a pianist has an impossible page turn, he thinks his own way out of it and makes the compromises that need to be made on his own. If a pianist is playing from an orchestral score which has massive stretches he just can’t play, or far too many notes for mere human hands, he does what he can do and leaves the rest out, with absolute impunity. No one has to give him permission to do this – he just does it. And what happens if a pianist is just finding the music a little tricky? He might fairly resort to all sorts of tricks, for instance leaving some of the inner notes out or skipping some of the more decorative features altogether, in order to be able to get from beginning to end without breaking down. Pianists make these decisions all the time. They never need a note from the composer giving them permission to cheat, just like a choir never needs a composer’s permission to stagger their breathing, or to divide when the composer asks for two notes in the same part. They’re just going to do it anyway.

The issue came up for me again as I worked on James Webb’s Drop, Drop Slow Tears. It’s an arrangement of Gibbons’ hymn for SSA and piano, and is stylistically utterly faithful to Gibbons, except for a four-bar introduction to each verse, which looks like this:

By the way, I strongly recommend you to try these bars out on the piano right now, and revel in the sonority you get if you observe the pedal and dynamic marks precisely.

This accompaniment is clearly intended for piano rather than organ. The diminuendo mark, however, is strictly speaking surplus to requirements on the piano, which is going to decay anyway a little during that first crotchet. There’s nothing you can do to stop it happening or make it happen more, once the chord has gone down. On the other hand, if you play it on the organ, the diminuendo mark is important.

Look at the sustaining pedal, which, if used as indicated, blurs the crotchet chords over into the dotted minim chords. If you wanted to try to mimic this on the organ (and it is our ambitious intention that you should be able to), you’d have your work cut out working out how you were going to finger it. Would it not be handy to have it written out in full so that an organist could play it at sight without having to think it out, and which the pianist could also play from? Something like this:

This makes it easier for the organist to mimic the sustaining pedal, but it doesn’t somehow look like the original, and I think that’s a loss. It seems to disguise what’s going on rather than elucidate it. Also, we’ve taken the liberty of omitting the repeated notes. If we’d kept them in, the result would be even more cluttered than this is. So I’m not sure we’ve gained much by doing it this way. And it certainly doesn’t make life easier for the pianist.

And in any case, holding chords down on the organ doesn’t achieve the same effect as having the sustaining pedal down on a piano. The piano still decays even with the pedal down, and so even if there were no notational challenges, we’d never end up with something that was spot on. So maybe writing for both instruments simultaneously is an impossible task.

In the end, after trying various things out and experimenting, I went back to what James had written all along, and I for one feel much happier about it. Anyone wanting to use it on the organ can make his own decisions about how best to treat it on that instrument, without me forcing their hand. At the very least, the organist will see at a glance the effect that James is after, and will find his own way to deliver it, even if he might need to think a bit about the fingering in advance.

What do you think? Have you grappled with this dilemma before? Did you come to a different conclusion? Let’s hear about it in the comments.


About Neil Sands

Director of the Chichester Music Press. Astronomer.
This entry was posted in Music typesetting, Publications and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Notating music for piano or organ

  1. Ralph Middenway says….

    “In such a circumstance, my first question is whether the reiteration is desirable.
    If yes, then your organ version could be amended, with more stuff in Voice 2.
    If no, the second question is whether, on balance, it’s likely to be played more often on piano or organ.
    If piano, then the piano version (Webb).
    If organ, then the second (organ) version.

    Left to my own devices, I would probably use the second version with more stuff in Voice 2.
    In a toss-up between visual transparency and musical clarity, I’m for clarity.”

  2. John Murdoch says:


    While both are played from a keyboard, the piano and the organ really are different instruments. The piano is essentially a pitched percussion instrument; the organ a wind instrument. And not just a wind instrument–but a mechanical coupling of several dozen (or more) simultaneously acting wind instruments.

    That has some implications for the music publisher.

    First, the typical organ has two manuals and a pedal. Many organs have three or even four manuals–but practically any church organ has at least two. On English (and American) organs the upper (Swell) division has dynamic range–the other divisions do not. You achieve dynamic range on those manuals (the Great and the Pedal) by pulling or closing stops.

    The piece you present is quite striking on the piano–but precisely what makes it so striking makes it impossible to achieve the same effect on an organ.

    On the other hand, what you can do is use the organ’s multiple keyboards: play the mezzo-forte chord on the Great, and the mezzo-piano chord on the Swell (with the swell box partly closed).

    But perhaps that’s getting into the weeds of organ performance. There’s another, larger point to make:

    In organ notation you are generally describing the notes to be played–but the organist understands that he will have to decide how to arrange the work across two manuals (at least) and the pedal division. You might write a piece (thinking of a pianist) using middle C (what we call C3). The organist might play that note on an 8′ rank of pipes–which will provide the same note you intended. Or he may play it on a 16′ rank of pipes (an octave below); or a 32′ rank of pipes (at the very low end of human hearing–you’ll feel more than you hear). The organist will very likely play that middle C with a 4′ rank as well–and if (like me) he has a carpeted sanctuary stuffed full of warm, breathing, sound-absorbing human bodies, he’ll pull the Mixture stop as well, in the vain hope that somebody toward the front of the sanctuary might hear it.

    Put another way: notation for piano tells the performer which specific keys to press. Notation for the organ generally describes the sound you want–it’s up to the organist to decide how he’ll present your work.

    An organist isn’t just a piano player with happy feet–he (or she) is also an arranger and a producer. (And if he has a pipe organ, likely also a metalsmith, carpenter, and low-voltage electrician; not to mention fundraiser.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s