Have you ever noticed anyone saying that they will “pull out all the stops” to get something done? They probably weren’t talking about an actual pipe organ. Read more to learn about stops and where this phrase comes from.
What does “Pulling out all the stops” actually mean?
In modern usage, this phrase means to reserve or hold back nothing. This is actually a reference to pipe organ terminology. Pulling out all the stops on a pipe organ would allow it to be as loud as possible.
This video demonstrates the massive dynamic range of the organ using various stops:
Louis Vierne’s Solemn Mass for two organs and mixed choir.
What is a stop?
A stop is a control mechanism which blocks (or stops) air from traveling through a set of pipes on a pipe organ. Pulling a stop allows air to flow to certain pipes when a keyboard note is depressed. Each stop corresponds to a set of pipes (called a rank) that associate with a particular instrument sound. Organists can engage various stops in combination to create certain new sounds. The largest organs have the most possible permutations of stop combinations.
How are stops distinguished from one another?
Stops are typically engraved with numbers and names corresponding to different pipe ranks.
The number on a stop refers to the length (in feet) of the longest open pipe of a particular rank. Stops marked with a higher number use longer length pipes and speak at lower pitches.
For example, 8′ stops use pipes with the longest open pipe measuring eight feet. These stops speak at the same pitch as many other instruments (such as a piano or flute).
In contrast, 4′ stops use pipes that are half as long, and sound much higher than 8′ stops.
The names on each stop refer to the name of the instrument associated with the stop. Most stops on the organ belong to one of four families:
- Flutes – Flute stops have a warm and sometimes hollow sound and are designed to imitate members of the flute instrument family.
- Strings – Pipes in this family are narrow and produce a string-like sound. Pipes in this family can be combined to create an orchestral sound.
- Principals – Principal pipes are unique to the organ and do not directly imitate other instruments. They are harmonically balanced and are characteristic to how an organ sounds.
- Reeds – This stop family uses a pipe with a vibrating component to produce sound. Stops in this family are typically louder than other stops and and can cut through other sounds of the organ.
- A clarion is a type of trumpet stop which speaks an octave higher than concert pitch (the name for this site Clarioncafe.com is actually a reference to the organ).
This video is an excellent demonstration of how different organ stops can sound. The organist plays several musical examples using different stop combinations. The video is just over 35 minutes but well worth your time.
- The Organ: an Encylopedia (edited by Douglas E. Bush and Richard Kassel)