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All About Old North’s Organ

Old North Church’s beautiful 1759 pipe organ is a focal point in our sanctuary and plays an invaluable role in the congregation’s church services. In the above video, Dr. Libor Dudas, Old North’s Music Director and organist, answers our most frequently asked questions about the organ’s history, how it works, how it is maintained, how it is used during religious services, and how visitors can hear the organ.

A Helpful Glossary of Musical Terms

Anthem: a choral composition with English text. Anthems developed in the Anglican Church during the 16th century as an alternative to the Roman Catholic motet, sacred music with Latin text.

Baroque: a style of western music dating from 1600-1750 that was characterized by dramatic, ornamental sound and multiple melody lines. Important composers from this period include Johan Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frederic Handel.

Bellows: a wedge-shaped device that pumps air through the organ. Today many organs have bellows that are operated by electricity, but prior to this, organs required a person to pump the bellows by hand.  

Cornet: a brass, valved musical instrument. It is similar to a trumpet but smaller in size and produces a deeper sound.

Manual: a keyboard that is played with one’s hands. The organ at Old North has two manual keyboards and a pedal keyboard, which is played with one’s feet.

Prelude: a music composition, usually brief, that is played before a religious service or ceremony.

Postlude: a music composition played at the end of a service that is meant to continue the feeling of the service as the congregants exit.

Stop: a mechanism on the organ that controls the airflow through a set of pipes. Stops correspond to sets of pipes that have different tone qualities.  Using different stops changes the sound of the organ. The expression “pull out all the stops” originates with the organ and the idea that if one were to use all the stops at once, it would create a very loud and ornate sound. 

The Bells of Old North

Old North Church is home to the oldest set of change ringing bells in the United States. They were cast in Gloucester, England and installed in the steeple of Old North in 1744. In 1750, the first Guild of Bell Ringers for the Old North was established by a group of young men from the North End and included fifteen-year-old Paul Revere. These young men wrote up a contract with the minister of the church, Rev. Timothy Cutler, in which they agreed to ring the bells once a week for two hours and in exchange would be paid three shillings for each service.

Since then, the bells have been heard throughout the centuries by Bostonians and visitors alike and have been rung for important events dating back to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. In 1982-1983, they underwent a restoration, which included replacing the wooden bell frames and ringing elements. Today, the MIT Guild of Bellringers continues to ring the bells of Old North for weekly church services, religious feasts, and holidays such as Patriot’s Day and July 4th. Watch the video embedded above for a Q&A with the Guild of Bellringers!


You can also listen to the bells here:

Recording by Jacek Smolicki, PhD, Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Harvard University 2022-2023.

Glossary of Bell Ringing Terms

Change ringing: the traditional English style of bell ringing in which intricate patterns, rather than songs, are played.

Permutation: the different orderings of bells in the ringing sequence.

Method: the various permutations or patterns of ringing the bells. It starts with a descending scale and then changes the order of the bells so that each bell rings in a different place in the pattern.

Peal: a specific type of change-ringing performance in which a full method is played. There are many technical requirements for peals including that they must be played without breaks from memory and each bell must ring at least 5,000 times. Full peals can last hours depending on the number of bells and complexity of the method.

Tenor bell: the lowest pitched bell. At Old North, the tenor bell is the largest bell, weighing 1,545 lbs.

Rhythm: pattern of sound set to a regular beat or pulse.

Steeple Keeper: the person responsible for the upkeep of the bells and bell ringing chamber.

Ringing Master: the leader or conductor of the bell ringing group.

Scale: a set of musical notes ordered by ascending or descending pitch.

Learn More About Our Bells

If you’d like to learn even more about Old North’s change ringing bells, check out these resources:

“99% Sure” Video Lesson – The Bells of Old North

Bell Ringer’s Agreement Classroom Lesson

Change Ringing Bells: What, How, and Why

The Bells at Old North

Bring the Sounds of Old North to your classroom with free teacher-created lesson that explore these instruments through subjects beyond history!

Purchase Tickets To Visit Old North Church & Historic Site