'Pulling out all the stops' has nothing to do with traffic

'Pulling out all the stops' has nothing to do with traffic
Pianos don't have stops.

After a particularly beautiful service at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, I happened to see its organist and director of music, Dr. John W.W. Sherer. I'm happy to count him among my friends, so after commenting on the day's music and the contrasts between the large service just ended and the smaller, earlier service I usually attend, I asked him a question about words.

Was I thinking properly about the expression "pulling out all the stops" as meaning the biggest possible sound?

I was. Sherer compared the expression to "going all out," but shared my surprise that most people don't see the musical meaning behind "pulling out all the stops." Let's fix that.

Pulling out a stop, in a pipe organ, is part of producing a note. Pulling out more stops is like adding more instruments -- a flute stop, a horn stop, or a strings stop. (Be proud of me for putting them in that order.) Pulling out all the stops is making all of the sounds at once.

To me, that's more complex than "going all out," although I'm sure that's how it feels to play that way.

"Going all out" could also apply to running or other kinds of maximum efforts. Let's keep "pulling out all the stops" for a more musical element and for a better variety in expressions.

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook. 

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  • I had no idea that "pulling out all the stops" originated in music! Long ago I shared a dormitory room with a girl named Altry who was a music major. I remember her going to practice playing the pipe organ, as one of her music instructors wanted her to be good enough to play in Sister's Chapel on Sundays. Now I think about it, she's the only person I've ever known to play it that instrument. I agree with you that "going all out" doesn't suggest the dynamism of "pulling out all the stops." Thank you for teaching me something new!

  • In reply to folkloric:

    You're very welcome! Thanks for stopping by and reading.

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