Eivind ved orgelet


- an attempt to satisfy the sense of hearing

At the age of 13, Eivind Groven had come up against the problem of just intonation when he attempted to tune a cither. He could not get the instrument tuned purely in all keys. Was something wrong with his ears?

From a neighbour he learned that one couldn't tune, for example, an organ "quite accurately." There would always be "something wrong with it". What this "something wrong" consisted of, Groven would come to occupy himself with for the rest of his life.

12-tone equal temperament - "a practical disease"

It is against the background of his innate sense of tonality that Eivind Groven could describe 12-tone equal temperament as "a practical disease" which devaluates the music. Like Hermann Helmholtz, a scientist Groven was inspired of, he felt that the tempered sounds obscured the impression of the music "in the same way as an impure, rough pane of glass blurs the vision".

The dream of realising a pure-tuned system

Groven considered his work with the pure-tuned (or just intonation) organs as a an attempt to satisfy the sense of hearing, as a step closer to perfection. His target goal was nevertheless clear to him at an early stage:

  1. to find a replacement for the equal-tempered compromise;
  2. to make pitches which lie outside of our normal pitch system accessible.

Eivind Groven wished to bring forth an instrument which could both assemble the irregular intervals which arose naturally within the folk music, and the just intonated scale for playing usual tonal and atonal music (f.ex. Bach and Valen). The crucial question became: how many pitches are sufficient in order to attain pure intervals in every key?

The pure-tuned harmonium

In opposition to others who throughout history had attempted to build instruments with non-tempered tuning, Eivind Groven always desired to stay with the standard piano keyboard, so the instrument should not cause the musician problems.

In 1936, Eivind Groven built his first just intonation instrument, a harmonium. Every key had three pitches. Groven's instrument employed an electronic switching mechanism, but still took its toll on the performer since it was only partially automatic.

The pitch-switching device and the pure-tuned pipe-organ

Eivind Groven and the automatic switching device
Groven demonstrates the automatic switching device

One night in July, during the summer of 1939, Eivind Groven suddenly understood that it might be possible to build a pitch-switching device which could be directly guided by impulses from the keyboard manual. The small time interval between when the finger touches the key to the moment it strikes the tone could be utilised. This way, the pure harmonies would occur automatically during performance, thereby relieving the performer of this task.

The first time around, Groven built his unique device out of discarded relays from the telephone company. Laboriously he forged ahead: testing, rejecting, succeeding, failing, and starting over from scratch. Money was in scant supply. In 1953, a pipe organ was finished, originally conceived as a test-organ. It had one voice and 36 possible pitches per octave.

The pure-tuned electronic organs

In 1965 Eivind Groven completed one of the first electronic organs in Norway. The instrument produced 33 timbres, including rare voices such as goathorn, willowflute, and bagpipe. The organ had two manuals together with pedals, and 43 pitches per octave. With this instrument, the pure-tuning device's relay logic was converted to transistor circuitry.

In the 1970's, Groven made yet another pure-tuned electronic organ out of a mass-produced organ. For this he returned to his previous solution with 36 pitches per octave.

Theoretical treatises

Eivind Groven`s work of realising pure tuning did not only crystallise in several organs with a built-in tone-shifting device, but also in several theoretical treatises on the topic: Temperering og renstemming (Tempering and Pure Tuning, 1948,1968), where Groven describes unequal tuning systems; Renstemmingsautomaten (The Pure Tuning Device, 1968), where he explains the principles of his automatic retuning device.

Eivind Groven's solution

It was, thus, in response to the equal-tempered compromise that Eivind Groven created his vision of musical perfection combined with practicality.

Throughout the years, Groven experimented with different degrees of subdivision of the scale and showed the flexibility to try different tuning systems. Nevertheless, he chose to settle upon the 36-tone partition in the long run. In this he was choosing a system in which the octave, the fifth, and the third were pure. The 11th partial of the overtone series, which forms Norwegian folk music's frequently used "natural fourth", is also completely pure, while the 7th overtone, the natural seventh, is fairly acceptable.

It is important to understand that Eivind Groven never considered his project to be complete (Frandsen 1995). But his work certainly was a great achievement.

Positive feedback

In Groven's lifetime, his work received considerably positive feedback at home and abroad (especially the latter) where, throughout time, so many had occupied themselves with similar problems. When Albert Schweitzer came to Norway in the fall of 1954 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, he got the opportunity to play Bach on the little pure-tuned pipe organ that was then installed at the Trinity Church in Oslo. Schweitzer had dreamt of hearing a pure-tuned organ for a long time, and remarked: "This is the most interesting I have ever heard. ... This is science. You are making the vine, I am drinking it".

[about Schweitzer's visit]

The organs today

The pure-tuned pipe organ and the two pure-tuned electric organs, are located in the "Eivind Grovens orgelhus", Oslo. The 1965 electronic organ with 43 pitches per octave, is no longer in operation. The pipe organ and the newer electric organ are still in use, even though the pitch-switching device is from 1965, and needs restoration. A new and technically updated device is advisable.

Visitors from Norway and abroad continue coming to see, hear and study Eivind Groven's pure-tuned organs. Today, musicians interested in just intonation have grasped the possibilities offered by modern technology. A computer program has been based on Groven's instructions. Further, David L. Code at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, USA) is planning an acoustic piano based on Groven's organ (36 pitches per octave) hopefully finished till Groven's 100th anniversary in 2001.


Written in July 1999 by
Anne Jorunn Kydland Lysdahl
Senior Academic Librarian.
National Music Collection, National Library of Norway,
Oslo Division


Available recordings

The 1936 harmonium may be heard on a legendary recording made that year, where Eivind Groven accompanies the folk singer Aslak Brekke from Vinje, Telemark. The recording has later been published on the CD "De første årene på radio" (The early radio years) (GRCD XXXX).

The 1953 pure-tuned pipe organ and the 1965 pure-tuned electric organ, may be heard on the record "Som symra rein og blå" (GRCD xxxx), played by the organists Sigvart Fotland and Kåre Nordstoga solo or accompanying Knut Askje (vocal), Dagne Groven Myhren (vocal) and Steinar Ofsdal (willow flute and "sea flute").


(Arvidsen 1982) Jørn K. Arvidsen: "Eivind Grovens renstemte orgel med automatisk toneoppvalg", I: Norsk kirkemusikk, Oslo 1982:8, pp. 295-303

(Groven 1927) Eivind Groven: Naturskalaen, Skien 1927

(Groven 1948, 1968) Eivind Groven: Tempering and Pure Tuning, 1948,1968

(Groven 1948b) Eivind Groven: "Temperering av tonesystemer", I: Fra fysikkens verden : 1. Oslo 1948

(Groven 1968) Eivind Groven: The Pure Tuning Device, Oslo 1968

(Groven 1971a) Eivind Groven: "Eivind Groven fortel", Eivind Groven - Heiderskrift til 70-års-dagen 8. okt. 1971. Red.: Olav Fjalestad, Oslo 1971

(Helmholtz 1863) Hermann Helmholtz: Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik, Braunschweig 1863


(Code @) David Code:
Eivind Groven's 36-tone Just Organ

(Grovens institutt @) Eivind Grovens institutt for renstemming:
Albert Schweitzer and the pure-tuned organ

(Lysdahl @a) Anne Jorunn Kydland Lysdahl:
Eivind Grovens arbeid med det renstemte orgelet i historisk perspektiv, I

(Lysdahl @b) Anne Jorunn Kydland Lysdahl:
Eivind Grovens arbeid med det renstemte orgelet i historisk perspektiv, II