Octave Helper to Extend Bass in a Pipe Organ

by Alex Jakubik
Octave helpers artificially create notes for absent pipes.

Octave helpers artificially create notes for absent pipes.

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Octave helpers extend the lower range of pipe organs when budgetary or space limitations prevent an organ maker from creating a full-range instrument. The term "octave helper" actually refers to a few specific practices in pipe design and in the combination of pipes to help the lower register of an organ sound more fully.

The Reasons for Octave Helper Use

Pipe organs generally have one pipe for every note. These instruments become large collections of pipes in order to provide the wide range of sounds and registers desired by an organ maker. Organ making and organ design can encounter limitations in the case of organs in churches that are centuries old. Sometimes there is not enough space for the very largest and lowest pipes. Other times the budget is simply lacking. An organ maker must either leave the lowest notes out completely or improvise a solution.

Solutions in Pipe Design to Create Artificial Lower Octaves

Organ makers eventually discovered that pipe alterations could create the artificial appearance of low notes without requiring the full height of a normal pipe. In the early 20th century, the organ maker William Haskell invented several designs that take pipes and suspend closed tubes within or over them. The result is a note one octave lower, thereby solving the problem of extending an organ's range while not having the space for the pipe.

Blending Pipe Sounds for Better Bass

The Haskell bass design proved effective in creating lower notes, but the sonic quality of the notes was erratic and not always trustworthy. Organ makers found that adding an additional pipe, usually one octave higher, would reinforce the weaker artificially created note. The added pipe would "help" the lower to create a full, musically useful sound.

Tricks in Physics of Sound to Simulate Octave Helpers

Octave helpers, either via pipe alteration or by addition of supplementary pipes, combine overtones to simulate lower notes. In the absence of octave helper pipes, an organist can actually play two lower notes to simulate a third "phantom" note even lower that the organ may lack. The overtones of any note begin with one octave, followed by a fifth and then a fourth. By playing a fourth extremely low on the organ, sympathetic vibrations can cause the octave underneath to appear, allowing the instrument to seem to have a lower and more impressive range.


About the Author

Alex Jakubik began his writing career in 2000 with book-cover summaries for Barnes & Noble. He has also authored concert programs and travel blogs, and worked both nationally and internationally in the arts. Jakubik holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University and a Master of Music from Yale University.

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