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What's So Important About Church Acoustics? An Infographic

What's So Important About Church Acoustics? An Infographic

The acoustics of every congregational worship space, from living room to cathedral, affect how people experience services there. And if a space was built for church services, then the planners chose to prioritize certain kinds of sound.

Everything shaping sounds waves in these spaces mediates the sounds people hear—everything from the kind of flooring to the height of the ceiling to how many people are gathered and whether they are wearing winter coats.

Here's an infographic with snapshots on the ways churches have approached acoustics over the centuries. If you'd like to learn more, scroll down! 

Medieval Church Buildings

Stone walls and tall ceilings produce an echoey space that is somewhat like being inside an instrument's soundbox. The congregation can sink into an ambient cushion of sound, but they can't hear crisply enunciated words or distinguish polyphonic musical lines.

The image below shows a typical layout of a medieval church. Besides the hard surfaces like walls and columns that create echoes, churches of this style usually had a screen between the chancel and nave. The screen and the priest's celebration of the Eucharist facing eastward (that is, facing the same direction as the congregation) further increase the sensation of being inside of “a beautifully executed, very large musical instrument” (Rath, How Early America Sounded, p.98).

The layout of All Saints' Church on the Isle of Wight.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Changing ideals in the Protestant Reformation

Changing theological ideals altered the soundscape in Reformation-era Protestant churches. The congregation was meant to hear and understand the spoken words of church leaders. As a result, many church buildings were retrofitted with draperies, galleries (to bring congregants closer to the speakers), and sounding boards above pulpits. These changes dampened echoes and directed spoken word from the preacher to the congregation. For example, when these changes were made at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (where J. S. Bach later worked), the reverberations lasted only 1/5 of what they were before.

Thomaskirche in Leipzig in a mid-18th-century etching.

The elevated pulpit and sounding board direct the spoken word to the congregation, who sits in pews arranged so they can hear but not always see the speaker.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

North American Colonies: New Buildings with Clear Acoustic Intentions

In the North American colonies, church buildings were newly built, so their makers' intentions shaped the buildings from the very beginning. The #1 priority was a focused direction of sound from the pulpit to the congregation so that sermons would be audible. Resonant congregational singing was a secondary priority. 

Richard Cullen Rath's How Early America Sounded explores these priorities in detail. Here's what he says is the result of those priorities in early-18th-century Anglican churches in Chesapeake, VA and in 17th-century New England meeting houses:

  • Elevated pulpits attached to a wall and sounding boards increased speakers' audibility.
  • Preachers' audibility was more important than visibility, so congregants couldn't always see the speaker.
  • Tall ceilings allowed for the sound waves of congregational singing to rise up and reverberate, adding fullness to the sound.
  • Congregational meeting houses in 17th-century New England were usually square or nearly square and sometimes had galleries. This layout kept people close to the pulpit for better audibility.

Some of these elements might seem obvious, but early Quaker buildings in the North American colonies reveal a different set of priorities.

Quakers' egalitarian social ideals resulted in meeting houses that were usually square (or nearly so), hexagonal, or octagonal. Ceiling were shallow, effectively resulting in 4-8 sounding boards across the whole space (depending on the shape of the space). In these spaces, any person could speak and be heard clearly, and everyone heard a similarly rich sound.

The Modern Soundscape

Fast-forward to the early twentieth century and to a seismic shift in the church buildings' acoustics.

Emily Thompson's definitive work The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 shows how technological developments like sound absorbing tiles and electronic amplification allow for a "reformulation of perceptions of space and time" that marks the modern soundscape (p. 187).

This reformulation means that what we see isn't necessarily what we hear.

The reredos of St. Thomas Church in NYC

Photo credit: Brandon K. Tan.

For example, vaulted ceilings would usually produce echoey spaces. But new kinds of tile—beginning with Rumford tile (1913) and later Akoustolith tile (1916)—could absorb sound.

NYC's St. Thomas Church looks like it would have similar echoes as the Gothic churches it was modeled on. But it was the first building to use Rumford tiles. The result is a substantial reduction in the building's reverberance.


The Vaulted Ceiling at St. Thomas Church, NYC

Photo credit Brandon K. Tan.

Around the same time, the rise in electronic amplification in the 1920s and 1930s allowed for people to hear "a soft voice at loud volume" (Rath p. 98). Electronic amplification precipitated a huge change in how speakers (and singers!) can project their voices while remaining audible.

Electronic amplification also allowed for visibility to become more important because congregants could be seated further away from a speaker and still hear him or her. Before, Protestant buildings usually prioritized speakers' audibility over their visibility, so people in the congregation sometimes had seats where they could hear a preacher but not see him.

Sound absorption and electronic amplification are still the hallmarks of church buildings being constructed and maintained today. Acoustic tiles, carpet, pew cushions and so on absorb sound, while increasingly high tech sound systems project speakers' voices (and sometimes vocalists and instruments) to the congregation.

So: what's important according to YOUR church's acoustics?

Get in touch on Facebook or Twitter. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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