Worship encourages even the most hesitant participant to take part in the hymns, songs, and liturgy. This post considers the role that good acoustics play when encouraging full participation in worship.
Importance of Acoustics
Participation in church music cannot be separated from the acoustical environment of the worship space. The acoustical space either can shape, blend, project, reinforce, and enhance, or it can obstruct, suppress, muffle, and diminish sound energy as it travels from source to listener. The quality and effectiveness of music is as dependent on the character of the acoustical space as it is on the quality and talent of the instrument and performer.
Without acoustical support, favorite and well-known hymnody can fail its purpose of genuine mutual expression. Further, the learning and reception of hymns unfamiliar to the congregation can be difficult and unrewarding in an unsympathetic acoustical space. In contrast, worthwhile acoustical environments draw untrained or hesitant worshipers into hymns, songs, and liturgy.
Poor environments diminish the efforts of even the most well-rehearsed singers and players. If the finest of professional musicians demand excellent music performance acoustics, how much more necessary, then, is acoustical assistance for the untrained person who desires to participate in liturgy and song?
Although all of the senses (touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing) are employed in worship, the primary mode of communication and expression is hearing. This is manifest in sung and spoken liturgy, lessons, prayers, sermons, hymns, songs, anthems, psalms, instrumental music, etc., during worship. A good acoustical environment is, therefore, of exceeding importance to worship and to church music. Can this “good acoustical environment” be defined, achieved, and measured?
“Good Acoustics” Defined
From a technical and acoustical standpoint, church music can be divided into two primary categories. There is music participated in by the entire congregation (consisting of elements such as hymns, psalms, and sung portions of the liturgy), and music presented to the congregation (consisting of elements such as organ voluntaries, choir verses and anthems, bell choir pieces).
A desirable “worship and music acoustic” is not intended to facilitate the enjoyment of a musical elite, but rather the full participation of every worshiper in every pew. Worshipers require a setting where they can participate well in hymns, psalms, and liturgy, and where they can receive music presented to the congregation in as excellent a form as possible.
The first attribute of a good acoustical space for church music, therefore, is a space where all worshipers are embraced, encouraged, and supported in hymns and liturgy. Although led by organ, piano, choir, or other instruments and voices, each worshiper must hear and join with the entire company of worshipers, and be enveloped in sound. A worshiper must never have a sense of isolation or of hearing only one’s own voice.
The second attribute of a good acoustical space for church music is an environment that assists all singers and instrumentalists in hearing each other well in order to develop a good musical ensemble of accurate tuning, rhythm, diction, and blend. Further, once a worthy musical ensemble is developed, it must be projected and distributed to all listeners with clarity, presence, and balance.
The third attribute, as in any acoustical space where careful listening and participation is required, is the suppression of any intruding or interrupting.
Post adapted from Key Words in Church Music. Pages 15-16. © 2004 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
To keep learning about important topics in church music, check out Key Words in Church Music by Carl Schalk.