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Acoustics in the Worship Space VIII
by Scott Riedel

From the May 1992 Edition of The Diapason.

Acoustic in the Worship Space, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX have appeared in The Diapason, May 1983, May 1984, January 1986, May 1987, April 1988, April 1990, July 1991 May 1992, and April 2009 respectively.

"A Church is not a Concert Hall"

An all too common response from those involved in church building or remodeling projects to the notion of acoustical planning is, "We need not worry too much about acoustics in our church—after all, this is a church, not a concert hall."

To many, the "concert hall" is thought of as a critical acoustical environment, while a church is considered a "quiet place of prayer" without other significant acoustical concern. The fact is that the church has many critical and complex acoustical needs. A concert hall has far less complex acoustical needs than a church!

A careful examination of the functional use of the room and behavior of participants in a worship service will reveal that a typical church service is very much an acoustical event, with the activity of the service largely communicated through sound. In a typical service there is a wide variety of sounds introduced; speech of sermon, lessons, prayers—music of organ, choir, instruments—and the participatory sounds of the congregation in hymns, psalms, and sung and spoken responses.

The church room, therefore, must provide a setting where all of the various sounds can be projected from diverse source locations to all listening locations. These "locations" are truly diverse. Note again: speech emanates from pulpit, altar, ambo, font, speakers, etc., while music emanates from organ, choir singers, instruments, etc. The important participatory sounds of the congregation (in hymns and liturgy) emanate from every seating location in the room. "Listeners" must receive this sound energy at all locations as well. The entire room, then, is critical as a sound distributor and receiver for music and speech.

By comparison, in the typical concert hall the less complex acoustical requirements are these: distribution of sound energy among musicians on the stage, and careful distribution of sound energy from the stage to the audience.

Critical acoustical differences between church and concert hall in this context are the one primary sound source location in the concert hall (the stage) compared to the many aforementioned sound source locations in the church, and the behavior of those in attendance. The audience is passive and quiet in the concert hall. The church demands an active, vocal, participating congregation.

Note that the technical and architectural means to acoustical success in a church or concert hall are both complex, requiring extreme technical precision. There are many architectural elements in the church space which contribute to its unique acoustical success. In most cases the use of a relatively high ratio of sound reflective materials in and around the congregation seating area is important. Sound absorbing materials such as carpeting, pew pads, or acoustical tile ceilings remove sound energy from the congregation. The effect is inhibited or prohibited congregational participation in speech and song. Sound reflecting materials such as wood, ceramic, vinyl, etc. floors, and plaster, stone or well sealed wood ceilings and walls can reinforce and distribute reflected sound energy among the congregation. In this way the congregation can become active aural participants, and not simply quiet observers. Appropriate room volumes, geometric form, and location of participants are also important to acoustical success for worship.

The functional differences make the church worship space more, not less, demanding upon the architecture for a truly desirable acoustical setting.

Scott R. Riedel is President of Scott R. Riedel & Associates, Ltd., an Acoustical and Organ Consulting firm based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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