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Why is the pipe organ so scary?

Scary Movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood helped cement the pipe organs reputation as a spooky instrument.
Scary movies from Hollywood's golden age helped cement the pipe organ's reputation as a spooky instrument.

This Friday evening, the Greater Hartford chapter of the American Guild of Organists will host its 30th annual “Pipescreams” event — a kind of spooky organ crawl and concert.

The pipe organ is often regarded as the “king of musical instruments,” but it’s also the king of scary music. It seems like anything played in a minor key on a massive pipe organ automatically evokes a sense of tension or dread. To help me break down why this is, I sat down with organist Michelle Horsley and asked for her thoughts. She is the dean of the Greater Hartford chapter of the American Guild of Organists and the music director at Trinity Episcopal Church in Hartford.

“I think the answer is I don’t know. I think part of me wants to say that organs are scary in the same way snakes are scary - we’ve been conditioned to think this is scary,” said Horsley. “That being said, the organ is inherently mysterious. I remember recently reading that the only two things humans are preconditioned to be afraid of are falling and loud noises. We do have lots of loud sounds on this instrument, and a massive variety of timbral options.”

She gave me an example of how imposing the organ can be with perhaps the granddaddy of all scary organ music, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. (Horsley points out that many scholars do not believe Bach wrote the masterwork, but I digress.)

“The scariness of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor is often scary because of the stops that we play it on,” said Horsley. “So, if you play it on a full organ, then it does have this classic organ quality to it, right?”

Horsley played those chilling staccato notes of the toccata, and then the eerie C-sharp diminished arpeggiated chord, which resolves to a major key. Conversely, she plays the same passage using a much gentler stop, the eight foot strings, and for sure, the scary factor drops significantly.

So we established that the timbre of the organ and the sheer volume of the instrument play a part in the spooky factor. The musical key is another. Horsley said in the western world we are conditioned to think of music written in a major key as happy, while music in a minor key as spooky or sad. Horsley said composers of organ music were well aware of these spooky factors.

“Certainly there are composers throughout the years that have written deliberately scary pieces for organ. I think about some of the mystical French composers, some of which will be represented on this program. The titles would suggest that these are deliberately meant to put you ill at ease, right?”

"Pipescreams" has been a big event for the Greater Hartford AGO for 30 years.
Great Hartford chapter of the American Guild of Organists
"Pipescreams" has been a big event for the Greater Hartford AGO for 30 years.

For this 30th anniversary Pipescreams concert, the organization is going all out. Friday evening will be like a pub crawl — the program starts at Trinity Episcopal Church, and then everyone will walk by lantern to nearby Asylum Hill Congregational Church for the second half of the concert. Horsley said that along the way there will be plenty of surprises and fun.

As we sat in the organ loft, with the darkened church below, I couldn’t help but ask Michelle Horsley if she ever gets spooked out practicing late at night in a big empty church?

“Heck yeah,” said Horsley. “Every organist I know has some story of a ghost, or some story of a bat that has flown into the sanctuary while they were practicing. Or a door loudly slamming and they are supposed to be the only one in the church, or lights going off mysteriously. These things just happen, these things just happen.”

The Greater Hartford Chapter of the American Guild of Organists

Pipescreams gets underway Friday at 6:15 p.m. with a bonfire in the memorial garden at Trinity Episcopal Church.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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