Have you noticed that a church is not a concert hall? I confess I often blur the two in my mind when I think about sound, envisaging that to get a good sound for music and spoken word in church, we could look to the principles used in concert halls or lecture halls. But Acoustics for Liturgy reminds me that “we must appreciate the difference between liturgical acoustics, in which a congregation participates in making music, and concert/lecture hall acoustics, in which an audience is there only to listen.”
The congregation says spoken prayers together as one voice; when we sing as a congregation, our song is also prayer and proclamation. Each member and the whole assembly as a body is a participant in the liturgy. So, I need to remember that, within the church, there is no spectator’s area, no audience, no passive place.
Being in a different church reminded me of it this week. At the service I attended, the assembly was no larger than that of my home congregation, and no younger, so the people didn’t have a stronger sound by reason of numbers or physical strength. But when we said “Our Father…” there was a warm sound of many voices speaking as one; and when we sang, it was vibrant and easy and, once again, a single corporate voice. Every time we sang, I saw faces light up as our sound bloomed during the opening phrase. Hooray for natural acoustics! The building itself supports the values of our liturgy.
You could also be reminded of how the congregation is a central actor in worship if you are accustomed to an adequate acoustic and you visit a more difficult one. Mark Williams recounts the experience of a congregation that temporarily moved from their acoustically live church to a dead space:
[In their own church building] the congregation sang, boy did they sing. And when they prayed or read prayers or creeds together, it sounded as one voice being offered up to the Lord. Preaching could be heard clearly without the aid of a mic. There was a corporateness in the worship and no one felt alone in their worship because of the acoustics of the room.
When we moved into the temporary quarters of the large historic church in downtown Savannah – quite beautiful and shared with us by a very generous congregation I might add – we found that the sanctuary acoustics had a dramatic impact on the life of our worshiping congregation. With carpet under the pews, velvet on the pew cushions, a domed ceiling constructed out of thin ¼” wood, and an HVAC system that was clearly audible at all times, we soon found that the corporate nature of our worship was decidedly changed. Worshippers complained of not being able to hear even the persons next to them singing or participating in the liturgy, singing lost its former gusto, and all speaking elements of the service had to be mic’d. The sense of the family gathered for worship and their combined voices being offered as one voice to the Lord went away in this new acoustic. As thankful as we were for the use of a beautiful historic space, the air went out of the lungs of our worship and no matter what convolutions we came up with to overcome it, there was no fighting this systemic disorder.
Going from one place to another is an excellent way of discovering what’s valuable in sound (whether in the context of worship or any other activity). Have you made any sound discoveries in new places?
 Edward A. Sovik, Acoustics for Liturgy (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), 38.
 Mark K. Williams, “The Holiness of Acoustics,” in Worship Space Acoustics: 3 Decades of Design, ed. David T. Bradley, Erica E. Ryherd, and Lauren M. Ronse (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2016), 34-36: 34-35.