Noise levels in worship...

As a Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) pastor of a church in Bloomington that has many Indiana University School of Music grads and undergrads in our fellowship, it's always been a challenge to balance our congregation's disparate musical tastes. Our liturgy is quite straightforward, adhering closely to the practice of reformation Geneva, but our music is eclectic (not the words--they're always doctrinally solid and tending to the objective, with a healthy dose of Psalm 73 subjectivity). For leadership of our congregational singing, our normal practice is to accompany the singing with a band or to sing the hymns a capella. This means half the people are happy half the time (or not happy half the time). But we love each other and...

love covers a multitude of prejudices even though, at times, we forget to love and our prejudices masquerade as principles (or even theology).

Anyhow, in recent months we've learned more than we ever wanted to know about echo, decibel levels, and acoustics. My son, Joseph, spent about a month pouring his time into a crash course on sound systems and acoustics. In the course of his study, he sent me the link to this helpful web page, pointing me also to this best quote:

Question: Certainly listening to Beethoven and Mozart is not the same as working around factory noise![?]

Answer: When the differences in the time spent listening to music and working in noise are taken into account, there is very little difference between the exposure one receives from Beethoven's Fifth and an assembly line in a factory. Some reports state that if you like the music it is slightly less damaging than noise of equal energy. Indeed, this appears to be the case, but it should be emphasized that enjoyment of the music only offers a very slight decrease in your likelihood to suffer a hearing loss.

Classical music is some of the loudest music performed. How come people don't complain about the volume levels at classical concerts but they will complain about an electric guitar played at a lower decibel level? You know the old saying, "All an Englishman's preferences are a matter of principle."

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and fifteen grandchildren.



You usually don't hear people complain about the volume of the strings and winds, but you might hear someone complain about the brass (conductors know never to encourage the brass). Seems that the reason for this has to do with sound directionality. Strings' f-holes point up for the most part; winds generally produce less volume with sound emitting toward the floor (oboes, bassoons, clarinets). But brass, capable of large noise, comes right at you.

To mimic the acoustic spread of the orchestra with speakers we'd have to use 100 little speakers. With our worship music, we're pumping quite a few decibels out of two, three, or four speakers. So, though the decibel level overall might be the same, the same noise coming out of two sources will put some in a hot zone.

I'm no acoustician; I'm just making this up...but in the end what the problem indicates to me is 1) sound is very complicated and grace must be shown both to the congregation and to the musicians trying to figure things out, and 2) we need to take our sound systems very seriously, spending a healthy amount of money and time on them.

Having said the above, I would guess in many cases those who complain about volume aren't thinking about directionality but are lobbying for their preferences, as you've written.

I remember reading an article by a father whose son had reached driving age. The son would be allowed to use his father's car at times. One time he picked his father up and when the father got into the car, it was obvious the radio station had been changed to one that the son enjoyed. The father immediately said, "Can you turn that down?" This happened on more than one occasion. One day the father picked up his son and the son, upon entering the car where the father's choice of radio station was playing immediately asked, "Can you turn that down?" Well, this led to the father doing some decibel checking over the coming weeks and he discovered that he and his son played their favorite stations at the same decibel levels. There was no difference in volume, rather only in type of music. But when the type of music was not cared for, the immediate conclusion was it was being played too loud. It reminds me of many Sunday mornings!

All true, but what do we do when the people complaining against the electric guitar stay consistent and also express the same concern about the organ’s volume (not at CGS, of course)? At least, in that instance, the Englishman remains somewhat principled.

In the end, I agree that decibel arguments are pretty irrelevant in the worship style discussion—regardless of the angle. On all sides, musicians must take care.

I think a great debate could evolve discussing acoustic vs. amplified sound. Amplified sound is obviously everywhere, existing in multiple worship settings. Its impact though, is pretty significant. Some would suggest that all our current societal ills stem from the invention of electricity. However deficient, it does provoke thought.

Volume can be a problem for reasons other than ear damage. A congregation should be able to hear itself sing and be able to compete with the band. If an orchestra is too loud for you to hear the person next to you singing, that is all to the good.

There are also members of CGS who adore the music at all times no matter what the noise level because it points our hearts to the grace and majesty of our Heavenly Lord.

Tim, do you know of anyone out there writing well on music and worship from a worship leader/musician perspective?

Jody, you may wish to check out "Singing and Making Music" by Paul Jones, director of music at 10th Pres. in Philly. It's really a collection of essays, some of them are very good.

In addition, I've heard that Bob Kauflin has written some good things (he's the director of music for Sovereign Grace ministries), though I've never read him myself.

Don't know if those will be helpful, but I hope so.

Heather Ummel had trouble posting this, so I'm having a go at posting it myself:

Here's a link to Kevin Twit's page:

He's a former PCA pastor in the Nashville area that now is the Belmont RUF leader. He has been a main force behind the resurgence of hymns among young people, and the updating of older, especially unsung, hymns with new music. This site has several articles by him about worship, hymns, etc. It also has all the songs he has written--words, chords, piano music, overheads. Joseph says local students would say his music had been "Twittified." He does excellent stuff, including "Arise My Soul, Arise."

Thanks Heather, I like what I've read so far!

Thank you too Dan, although I'm not very keen on Paul Jones' book. Maybe later this summer I can find time to write a review of it so as to share my concerns with you. Have you read it yourself?

I've read about half of it. Raises some good points, and then he's really out to lunch in others as well. He does bring up the validity (or lack thereof) of electric instruments, suggesting that they are inauthentic and inappropriate for worship because they do not produce acoustic sound. I'd love to read your review of it.

Twit has great stuff. More of us should be putting hymns to modern music, and I suggest we even go one step further: People don't appreciate or practice Psalmody nearly as much as we should. We should start a collection of Psalms set to modern music, useful for corporate worship (for example, google the band 'sons of korah').

I've been thinking very seriously about doing something in the vein of what Indelible Grace does. I think the idea of what they're doing is great, but much of the music is very difficult to sing, largely because it uses way too many off-beat rhythms. One thing that many of the great hymns have in common is that they are easy to sing due to their simple and repetitive rhythms.

I came up with a simple melody for Isaac Watts' version of Psalm one. I might try to record it sometime this week. Here's a pdf:

I'd love some feedback, if anyone has any to offer.

Keith, I just finished singing through your whole song and really enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing your work.

Thanks, Heather. I found the lyrics in this book . . .

. . . via Google books, so I'm going to try some more over the next few weeks.

"Loud music can do more than damage your hearing - it can also cause your lungs to collapse."

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