Now trending….the pipe organ (or nearly!)

I met a guy once in Newcastle who had bought up all the old Hammond organs he could in the 1960s and 70s, when they were often being ripped out of nightclubs and sold for scrap. I’m not sure how many of them he managed to hang on to for 25 years, but he would have turned a tidy profit when the ‘retro’ sound and feel of the B3 became so widely cherished in the 1990s.

It is obvious that musical fashions swing, just like the fashions for everything else. Instruments and styles come and go. Different things bring a fresh sound and fresh appeal to different generations.

But only some of us have the ability to see these changes coming. For example, I had grown up with the innate belief that ‘electric piano = cheese’. So, back in the mid-1990s I was happy to give away an old Rhodes stage piano (albeit in need of some repair) that had accumulated at church and was taking up much-needed space. About five years later, along came Norah Jones to turn my thinking on its head, and I kicked myself.

It’s surely only a matter of time before the same thing happens with the pipe organ. As a rule, I think the ‘baby name’ theory holds – when virtually all the previous generation of Alices or Mollys or Emilys have died out, then the early adopters start taking it on again.

Likewise, we are at a stage now where you could be 40 years old, have belonged to a range of decent evangelical churches all your life, and never heard a pipe organ played.

In one sense, of course, any instrument is just an instrument. Even though a pipe organ can bring sounds and textures that no other instrument can, it’s still just another instrument. But I think its time may be coming, partly because there is a renewed yearning for historical connectedness in church life (which can be a good thing). And partly for no other reason that that fashions swing.

My anecdotal experience is that people in churches who are positively negative towards pipe organs (if you can put it that way) tend to be aged over 35 rather than under 25. The middle-aged often associate the organ with ‘the smell of death’ from the churchy but pre-Christian days of their youth; but most of those growing up today have no such preconceptions. Even if they had ‘churchy but pre-Christian’ days, the organ didn’t feature in them.

Last year I saw a video discussion amongst some ‘young, restless, reformed’ musical types from the mid-West. Just in a throwaway comment, one of them mentioned alternative musical styles like the pipe organ. That would never have been said 10 years ago!

With that in mind, I was interested to read this piece. It foresees a day when the ancient spaces of dying congregations are taken over by young, evangelical church plants who rediscover the pipe organs that lurk within. Quite possibly! My only question is on cost. Most things are getting cheaper; pipe organs are not. It needs a big vision to come up with the sums necessary even to maintain a pipe organ, let alone to buy one.

We shall see! In the meantime, you’ll know what the next big musical trend will be. It will be whatever I threw out five years previously.


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