How Loud Is Too Loud?

Volume in worship can be a touchy subject, one full of tensions. However, by looking at it through the lens of universal design and applying this principle to volume, we can see the many tensions in play and work together to glorify the Lord and lead God's people in song.

Soundwave

When it comes to volume in worship, how much is too much?

My four year old niece very proudly tells everyone who asks that when she gets bigger she wants to play tuba, drums, and cymbals, “because they are loud.” But as a musician, I am aware that while they are loud, these instruments can also be handled in a way that isn’t loud—at least all the time.

Universal Design

At the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we have been learning a lot about universal design, defined by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University’s College of Design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design.”

We have been thinking about how this principle applies to worship, including the volume of music in worship.

Tensions

It is a topic fraught with tensions, but one that is perhaps ignored by congregations and other communities at great peril. An appropriate volume for each room or sanctuary runs the gamut in many churches. For some individuals, loud sounds are difficult or overwhelming to process due to a sensory overload. While some of these individuals have a diagnosed sensory processing disorder, other individuals in our communities simply find loud sounds over an extended period of time to be tiresome and overwhelming. Yet, others thrive on this sensory stimulation, despite the American Speech-language hearing association’s research outlining that anything louder than 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing damage.

There are also individuals in our congregations who have difficulty hearing, sometimes despite loop systems and hearing aids. Ludwig van Beethoven suffered hearing loss; in fact, according to legend he cut off the legs of his piano in order to feel the vibrations of the notes as he composed his 9th Symphony. And while we cannot verify this legend, we also cannot deny the fact that music is vibrations, and people are able to “feel” the music through those vibrations—even more so when they are loud.

Volume is a key issue in worship in many other ways as well.

Musicians playing with a large group rely on stage monitors, and the more volume that is put into the on-stage monitors, the more the house amplification needs to be turned up to achieve a balance of all the instruments and singers.

The same thing can be said about pulling all the organ’s stops too often. Organists rely on the low rumbling bass to drive the hymn and the 2 foot pipes (creating a sound pitched two octaves higher than the note played on the keyboard) to carry over the singing of the congregation.

I could go on with examples, but all of these produce great challenges.

Achieving Balance

When the loudest volumes are used sparingly, musicians can work together to find appropriate balance across all instruments and genres. Additionally, using the loudest volumes sparingly shifts the focus to the singing of the congregation, and encourages good congregational singing. This allows the words to be sung and heard, shaping the faith of the congregation.

While I won’t discourage my niece from playing the tuba or the drums, I will help frame her musical training so that she knows how to play well in a group of musicians and knows how to balance her desire to play loud with the real objective—to play well, whether that is playing tuba tenderly in a quartet or triumphantly on “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”

Questions

As we at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship think about these concepts, we realize that we don’t have it fully figured out. We’d love to dialogue with you about what has worked in your communities. Please submit ideas to worship@calvin.edu or reply using the Facebook link at the bottom of this article.

  • What are the perceived tensions related to volume in your communities?
  • What has worked for keeping the balance of sound “in check” in your communities?
  • Where have you reframed the desire to play loud with the desire to lead the congregation to sing well?
  • How have you talked about this in your communities?

Some gradually emerging themes and ideas:

  • The text of the song can help to determine the overall volume.
  • The arch of the service—the “high points” and the “low points” in the texts and liturgical actions—can help guide the volume of the service.
  • Many apps are available to check the decibels in your worship space.
  • The same music in many places throughout your sanctuary or worship space might “seem” louder based on architecture, how sound travels, the placement of organ pipes and other instruments, and the placement of amps and speakers. The decibel levels throughout the space are likely to be different.
  • Consider mutes, swell pedals, hot rods, drum shields, or absorbing material for certain instruments to balance the sound of an entire group.
  • Consider changing one thing each week—one rhythm, piston, or notch on the sound board, so that everyone can work together to use the loudest moments sparingly, when they are absolutely fitting to the text.

Finally, may the goal be to learn and play music together, and in everything, to glorify the Lord and lead God’s people in song.

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