Playing Differences – Theatre Organ vs Classical/Church Organ

Experience the sound of the Theatre Pipe Organ

The Classical or Church Pipe Organ was developed down through the ages to play classical and liturgical music.  As such, musicians who play these instruments are trained to read three staffs of written music: a treble staff for the right hand, a bass staff for the left hand, and, a staff for the feet playing the pedals  The music is played exactly as the composer, (Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, or the hymn writer) wrote it.  Most times both hands are playing on the same manual (keyboard). So a classically trained organist either reads the exact music or plays the exact music from memory.

Enter Robert Hope Jones, the father of the Theatre Pipe Organ, who took the classical organ and developed it into a “Unit Orchestra”.  The differences between the two types of instruments have already been discussed in the section “WHAT MAKES THE THEATRE PIPE ORGAN UNIQUE?”

The differences between how the two types of instrument are played is also significant!

As a Unit Orchestra, the Theatre Pipe Organ is an improvisational instrument. When first applied to silent films, the artists were forced to invent their own melodies to match the mood of each movie scene.  Sometimes the players were supplied with “cue sheets”.  These were snippets of written music suggested by the film maker for different types of action in the film. (love scene, chase scene, riot, whatever).

Back in the 1920’s not many scores were written for movie accompaniment. It was mostly improvisation.

As the Theatre Pipe Organ evolved to also be today’s concert instrument, the trend continued.

There is very little in the way of written Theatre Pipe Organ arrangements out there, documenting the music you hear in today’s Theatre Organ concerts: popular music, show tunes, and movie themes.

Theatre Pipe Organ artists play using several basic methods.  They play by ear arranging on the fly as they go. They develop their own arrangements and memorize them, or they arrange as they go using a lead sheet. (Lead sheets are printed music with just the melody notes and corresponding chord names to be used.)


A pejorative expression for arranging on the fly is “faking it”. The terminology is used by purists who believe that the only way to play organ music is to read every note on the page.

It is said that famed Radio City Music Hall Theatre organist Dick Liebert never played a tune exactly the same way twice.

When playing at the Theatre Pipe Organ, the pedals are used to provide a bass line for the music, similar to the bass fiddle player in a jazz combo.  The left hand pays an accompaniment of chords or counter melodies, generally on the bottom (accompaniment) manual. The right hand uses the upper manuals to play the melody in single notes, chords, or parts of chords, using solo voices or ensemble registrations.

Is it any wonder that a classically trained organist is lost when he or she sits down at a Theatre Pipe Organ console?  Or that a Theatre Organist is lost when confronted with a
Classical or Church organ?

Yes, there are organists out there who can do both: sight read three staffs, and create an orchestra arrangement on the fly. Most who can do both, however have had significant musical training in their background.


                           Example of a Lead Sheet 
               Chorded Piano Music May Also be Used