The Reed Organ


Reed organs differ from the less portable pipe organs in the way the sound is produced. It is a keyboard instrument sounded by vibration of metal reeds under wind pressure and they are commonly refers to as instruments having free reeds [vibrating through a slot with close tolerance] and no pipes. The piece of thin metal in a frame that air flows past to generate a sound in the instrument is called a reed and this give the instrument its name "REED ORGAN".

Blower-supplied "constant volume of air" in pipe organs, thus pipe organ require the use of swell shutters to control the volume.  Reed organs don't have that limitation.
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Reed organs have been around for a long time, and was the most popular instrument of its day. They are also referred to as parlour organs, cottage organs, pump organs, concert organs and practice organs [for future pipe organists]. These names are from the way they were used because the instruments gracing chapels, churches, schools and fashionable parlour at homes.


There are two principles how the air brings the reeds into vibration. The European system, mainly in France uses pressure air bellows, whereas the American system chooses the opposite way with suction air [vacuum]. The suction instruments were mainly produced in the US, and in Europe in Germany. The American construction is easier to make and produce, and the reed organs have a softer sound compared to the European harmoniums.
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To make sound, reed organ players must continuously pump the foot pedals. Instead of pumping in rhythm with the music, experts change the speed to affect the volume of the music. The pressure reed organs have a stronger sound than the so-called suction reed organs, with its softer and weaker sound. For this reason the suction instruments were mainly used in family homes.

Reed organs mostly has one manual with a rare pedal board, but they were also made in many styles and models from those having one single stop to larger two or three manual pedal organs with as much as 30 stops. These portable musical instruments compare to pipe organs were widely used in smaller churches and in private homes in the 19th century.


Family of reed organ include the harmonium and the melodeon and they are distinct from organs proper [i.e., pipe organs]. A type of small pipe organ describable as a reed organ is the Regal, which has beating reeds [vibrating against a frame] and pipe resonators.

Reed organs became very popular in the second half of the nineteenth century, and many factories sprung up to produce these instruments in masses. During this period there was quite a large repertoire written for this instrument, from such composers as Alain, Boëllman, César Franck, Vierne, Alexis Chauvet, Liszt, André Fleury, Karg-Elert Reger, Widor, etc


But during the years after the Second World War the reed organ lost its popularity, and was very often replaced by electronic instruments. Very often old instruments like these were dumped or "modernized".

Most of them you see and hear these days are not what they were like when they were new. Today, most reed organs are out of tune, cannot hold enough suction [air leaks] and have not been serviced properly for more than a generation or two. No wonder so many people listen and laugh at the novelty of it all, between the funny sounds, and watching the poor player work up a sweat, thumping, clunking and pumping away to make noise. Reed organs are really not like this at all!


Virtually any reed organ in any condition can be restored to playability if the owner is willing to spend enough time or money or both. If a reed organ is functioning reasonably well (it makes music to the satisfaction of its owner), simple repairs may be all that is necessary. But sometimes, a reed organ has been stored under adverse [usually wet] conditions, and is so badly damaged that restoration to musical viability is impracticable.  When this is the case, the reeds can be pulled and saved, along with many other useful parts (high on this list are screws!)

It is obvious that many of us will not appreciate this wonderful instrument until we learn and understand that they are very expressive and full of colour, which I believe that like piano, they are on a class of their own. We should also know and be aware that they are not a replacement for a pipe organ but something entirely different. Reed organ is different keyboard instrument, because your expression is through the feet. With this, you've got to disconnect your feet from your brains and connect them to your emotions. Your feet become the artistic expression of the instrument rather than the rhythm of the instrument.

Good reed organist will vary pressure on the foot pedals to achieve dynamic phrasing similar to what a concert band or even a congregation singing a song in worship will and when he/she plays to shows the various mixtures and voices the organ has, the good listeners will really feel the organ’s wonderful sounds and abilities.

There are too many organists and keyboard players in general that do not understand the abilities of a well maintained reed organ or harmonium.  These instruments can sing and breathe life into many types of music, as long as the treadles are used properly.


Very few musicians understand reed organs correctly and little of the few seem to fully understand them perfectly. Many considered them good for accompanying hymns in poor old-fashioned churches and not much else really and that they were more novelty than anything. But if you listen again and again to the sound of the reed organ, you will marvel what beautiful instruments they are with such quality of sound from just little reeds.
2 Manuals Doherty Victorian Reed Organ
The sound of these little instruments are amazing and some of them sound better than pipe or electronic organs. They have a voice/string quality and less of the bombast; this is because they can breathe like a voice with careful control of the treadles. Though, their volume and tonal range are limited but they do complement bigger churches and auditorium. By the way, many French cathedrals use a harmonium [family of reed organ] for part of their services because they can really fill a big church with sound. Their unique sound, and working the pedals to move air to create the music, add to the unique beauty of the reed organ.


However, I know a good deal of people that frown on them as being "dead technology" and no longer having a place.  I can’t see some people plunking down the money for something like this, when a digital [virtual pipe organ especially] can give so much more. But believe it or not, some people thoroughly enjoy the experience of playing an instrument that does not require a loudspeaker to function and one of them is this amazing instrument called REED ORGAN.

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