The Church Organ In Film


While many organists likely think of the instrument in the context of great performance halls or church settings, for the average listener, the church organ is distinctly tied to the soundtracks of popular media. In particular, film has shaped many people’s understanding of the instrument and its use to convey drama, tension, and fear. While not nearly as prolific as the history of the instrument itself, the history of the church organ in film is quite extensive, and the distinct sounds of the pipe organ can be found in a variety of films. Today, Viscount Organs will discuss the role of church organs in film.

Early Film Sets The Tone

For the first few decades of film, movies were made without sound. The result was that theatres and movie houses had in-house pianists and organists. These organists were given sheet music to play along with the film or were encouraged to play whatever seemed to fit the tone of the film. It is likely that this early exposure to the instrument began to create a connection in the minds of moviegoers between film and the sounds of the church organs.

But more than just playing the organ in the theatre itself, some films even centered around the instrument. Famously, The Phantom Of The Opera featured a deformed Phantom who haunts an opera house in Paris. The climactic scene of the film sees the villain being unmasked while playing the organ, revealing a ghoulish visage that, comical by today’s standards, was likely terrifying to audiences in 1925.

When sound began being incorporated into films, it changed the way audiences experienced film. Similarly, the way they perceived the organ changed as well. In keeping with the precedent set early, in 1928, Warner Brothers released The Terror, which followed a similar plot to Phantom, features a devilish organist that goes on a murderous rampage. This was the second film that Warner Brothers released with sound, making this film likely the first horror film with sound.

The Organ – Perfect For Ominous Soundtracks

The influence of these two films can still be felt today. In films and television, it’s a common trope to have the villain seated at the bench of a massive church organ, or for their dastardly plot to be unveiled to a soundtrack of dramatic sweeping organ music.

Likely this is because of the nature of the instrument itself. It’s imposing size is symbolic of the seemingly insurmountable nature of the villain themselves. The hero feels overwhelmed by the challenges ahead of them, and the immense sound of the organ serves to overwhelm the audience’s sensations.

Variations On A Theme

Echoes of the famous unmasking scene in Phantom Of The Opera can be seen in dozens of films in a wide variety of genres. In the classic 1950 noir film, Sunset Boulevard, the main character’s servant, played by Erich von Stroheim plays Bach’s famous Toccata in D Minor as part of a dream-like sequence that tortures the detective. Despite the instrument’s age, it continues to play a role in films, including recent works like 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight. While one might expect a robot to transform into a church organ, in fact, a robot actually plays a stirring tune, ending his piece, and the scene, with a dramatic flourish and announcing he had made “the moment more epic.”

The Presence Of The Organ In Film

While church organs have made on-screen appearances in many films, their iconic sounds have appeared as part of the soundtrack of many more. In the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon for film score composers to utilize the impressive sounds of the pipe organ in science fiction films. Accomplished composer, Bernard Herrmann made use of the organ in the soundtracks of three famous films, 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1959’s Journey To The Center Of The Earth, and 1961’s Mysterious Island. Later, the 1982 film, Tron, featured a scene set to an extended pipe organ solo, continuing the connection between the organ and sci-fi films. More contemporary composers like Hans Zimmer still use the instrument to convey grand emotions in their scores. Zimmer made use of the organ in the critically acclaimed film Interstellar.

While many churches still utilize this amazing instrument in their services, most audiences get the majority of their exposure to the church organ through film. The result is that people have a strong connection between the bombastic sounds of the organ and the climatic, or most tense moments in a film.

The shifting perception and connotations of church organs does not mean that the art of organ playing is fading away. Thanks to the innovations of Viscount Organs, you can breathe new life into your old pipe organs by utilizing a Viscount Organ Console. Connected to your existing pipe organs, and using Physis® technology, our digital organs can add new depth, dimension, and sounds to your organ. Contact us today to find a dealer near you today!

The Unico series is a line of classic organs developed with Physis® physical modeling technology, entirely designed and patented by Viscount’s Italian research facilities. With this new approach, based on physical modeling of the pipe organ, you will enjoy the most faithful and malleable sound on the market today.

Thanks to accurate audio reproduction and powerful reverberation effects, Viscount has transferred the magnificence of a large pipe organ into the convenience of a compact instrument.

The Unico series has a rich library of customizable settings and parameters which allows you to select, assign and store hundreds of additional registers. Features are easy to access through a discrete backlit main control display.

The SONUS series is a line of classical organs developed with exclusive Physis® technology - designed and patented by Viscount’s laboratories. Based on modeling the physical phenomena involved in pipe organ sound generation, the sound generated is incredibly authentic.

On top of Physis® sound generation technology, we have designed a revolutionary new audio system called RAR (Real Audio Rendering). Thanks to RAR technology, you can totally manage the impression of three-dimensional space in which the instrument is placed – from the smallest room, all the way up to a large cathedral setting. The new Viscount RAR (Real Audio Rendering) technology represents a significant step forward in terms of definition, spatiality and body of the sound, which is the most authentic way yet to create that magical effect of the most important organ stop – ‘the ambience’. Sitting at the console of the new Viscount Sonus, you will experience the most realistic impression of the instrument and its setting available from any digital organ you may care to play.

The OUVERTURE is an organ with 3 keyboards, complete pedalboard and 55 registers - each of which can select hundreds of organ and orchestra voices. There is also an orchestra register for every section of the organ which can be selected from the numerous options available.

The organ comes with 8 organ styles (4 fixed and 4 programmable) that allow the organist to create and store an infinite number of combinations, either in the 128 internal memory locations or externally via USB memory. The parameter settings are easily accessible through the graphic display on the front panel. The “Tracker Action” style keyboard accurately detects touch by obtaining the speed of actuation of the keys, making it possible to feel a "Tracker Touch" effect, i.e .the correlation between the "touch" of the organist and the transient attack of each virtual pipe.

Developed with the award-winning and patented Physis® physical modeling technology, which reproduces the physical phenomena involved in the sound generation of the pipe organ, the Ouverture is capable of generating the highest-fidelity, most authentic church organ sound.

Chorum instruments faithfully reproduce the sounds of a pipe organ with proprietary ARTEM technology (Advanced Real TEchnology Music) designed by Viscount's Research and Development labs in Italy.

The richness and beauty of stops are enhanced by an accurate reverberation system, able to recreate a great variety of acoustic environments, from a small chapel to the largest cathedral.

Chorum organs are highly functional, yet simple to use; you can store a large selection of memories and recall your stop combinations.

Unico Collection

Our flagship Viscount organ line powered by our patented Physis® (Physical Modeling) Technology.

Sonus Collection

Physis® Technology & the most powerful self-contained audio system available.

Chorum Collection

Our sampled-sound based Viscount organ that beats all others in price & value for the money.

Physis® Pianos

The most advanced digital piano on the planet using Physis® Technology.