How Music is Challenging the Traditional Church Design
For most people, their vision of an old church is a cathedral with stone halls and stained-glass windows. Early church design is typically large and rectangular in shape with a tall, gabled roof. The music, such as Gregorian chants, was created to suit the room’s acoustics and long reverberation times.
To understand reverberation, we need to understand that sound reflects off nearly all surfaces in a space and arrives at a listener at different times. Reverberation is the collection of these reflections over time and impacts the sound that you hear. As music evolved, there were changes in church design to match. With the advent of classical music from composers such as Handel and Bach, we saw newer churches designed with wood and plaster rather than masonry. Reducing the mass of the building reduced reverberation in these rooms which was more conducive to an organ and supporting choir.
Designing Churches for Today’s Sounds
Fast forward to today, as contemporary Christian bands draw inspiration from the likes of mainstream music like U2 and Coldplay, church music has expanded to include faster tempos and more contemporary instruments including drums, electric guitars and keyboards as well as lead and back-up vocalists.
Music has always been an integral part of a service but as it evolves, churches are facing acoustical challenges. In a very reverberant room, instruments sound like mush and the music gets too loud, too easily. On the other hand, if there isn’t any reverberation, congregations can’t hear themselves singing and feel detached. The room isn’t working for the music anymore.
Relocating to Accommodate Acoustical Needs
So how do you change the acoustics in a historical church? Some churches are opting to change their buildings, moving away from gabled roofs and rectangles and even relocating to less traditional venues in order to accommodate the new style of music and accompanying acoustical requirements. We now see congregations gather in concert venues, theatres, school auditoriums, even clubs or bars during the day because they are more conducive to their programming and appeals to a younger demographic.
It might seem drastic to uproot the church but bad acoustics can make a sweet service hard on the ears and turn off parishioners. On the flip side, the right architectural design and acoustical treatments can create an environment that invites and encourages all to participate in the service. Those who wouldn’t normally sing along might feel more comfortable joining if they don’t feel like they’re the only one singing.
Acoustical Design for Church Bands
If your congregation wants to sing but the acoustics of your church make it challenging, there are some acoustical considerations to help accommodate the music without alienating worshipers:
1. Consider a quiet stage:
When a band is included in worship service, the sound from the various instruments can reflect off the walls, ceiling, and floor and bounce back into the congregation. This causes it to come across as too loud or outright overwhelming to the audience. If the stage is too loud and resonant, it makes it difficult for musicians to hear their instruments clearly, so they tend to turn up their stage volume which aggravates the issue further. To combat this, there are various options to consider.
- Move the guitar amps off stage or into isolation cabinets
- Use a drum enclosure/put plexiglass shield around drums
- Have musicians use in-ear monitors eliminating the need for on stage monitors
2. Control reverberation:
A critical component of acoustics is controlling when sound arrives at a person. If it arrives over too wide a time, it’s incomprehensible. If it’s over too narrow a time, it sounds flat or lifeless. If you’re in your own space and able to modify the design, consider putting up absorption panels to absorb acoustic energy and reduce the reflection of sound from the walls and ceiling. Be careful not to add too much absorption, because it could make the room sound sterile. If you have a well-treated stage, some of the tactics mentioned in the first point above, like a caged drum set may not be necessary.
3. Find the Sweet Spot with Sound Systems:
Unlike a rock concert where you want all of the sound going to the audience at a high level to overcome the noise of the crowd, a church service involves the congregation. Congregants need to hear each other so they don’t feel like they are singing solo. The right balance of sound system volume and the natural acoustics of the room needs to considered in the design. For churches, the number of people attending each week fluctuates and a hard pew will reflect sound and will change the natural acoustics of a room drastically if it is occupied or not. With a properly designed room and modern theatrical seating, the room can be designed to have similar acoustical properties whether it is empty or full. An acoustical consultant can help you find the sweet spot and create an integrated design that accommodates the reverberation in the room as well as an audio-visual system.
Attracting new parishioners and retaining existing ones is something most churches will agree is a priority. Modifying programming to suit more contemporary music and the interests of a younger demographic is a great initiative but one which must be conducted carefully to ensure the acoustical design inspires meaningful worship and doesn’t have parishioners praying for the music to end!