American Catholic Press
16565 S. State Street, South Holland, Illinois 60473
by Evan Kreider
If the acoustics of two churches owned by the same parish can differ so drastically, what causes the one to ring with our singing and the other to act like a musical black hole? Stated simply, congregational singing is either enhanced or deadened by the room's shape and by the materials used in the construction of its floor, seating, wall, ceiling, and stage.
The very shape of a church affects the sounds heard within it, because successful distribution of sounds throughout the room is determined by how the sounds are reflected by the room's walls, floor, and ceiling. Over the centuries, the building of churches has demonstrated that longer rectangular churches reflect congregational singing more efficiently than do the more recent fan-or even semi-circular shapes. Concert halls have likewise shown that parallel walls enable sound to be distributed evenly throughout the entire room, though there are ways being developed for working with non-parallel structures. Since this utterly simple rectangular shape not only works superbly for congregational singing but also for our listening to worship teams or preaching, why are many of our congregations now opting for the fan-shaped sanctuary in which singing is so effectively deadened?
Part of the answer can be found in our recent interest in the community of faithful gathering around its pastor, its charismatic leader. But part of the explanation also comes from visible symbolism of this community of faith being gathered together, as opposed to our being lined up in straight rows. The exaggerated fan-shaped sanctuary can promote a heightened sense of community to us visually (I find that this is noticeably increased as the room's fan-shaped is opened towards the semi-circle or beyond, as in the case of the Goshen College Mennonite Church). In my experience, however, the distribution of sound from the "voice of the people" is never as successful in a fan-shape sanctuary as in a rectangular one. (This is why you will never find fan-shaped concert halls).
My visits to our parishes however, suggest that all the advantages or disadvantaged presented by any particular room shape can always be profoundly modified by the inclusion of certain building materials. Hard surfaces obviously reflect sound more readily than do softened surfaces such as those found in false ceilings or acoustical tile (acoustical implying a deadening rather than enhancing of sound).
Of these building materials, one of the most significant is the presence or absence of wall-to-wall floor carpeting. I am tempted to entitle this section, "Wall-to-wall church sanctuary carpeting, the invention of the devil", for even old Screwtape himself could not have contrived a more efficient way to dampen our joy in worshipping God through congregational singing or sharing from the pews—our determined carpenters have done the devil's work for him. CAPETS ABSORB SOUND. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons we install carpeting in our homes, hotels, hospital lounges, airplanes, stores, and waiting rooms.
The argument usually posited is that we wish to create a dignified church, one promoting a quiet environment for our corporate worship. Some people do not want to hear babies make any sound whatsoever, nor do they want our young children to interrupt the funereal lecture-hall atmosphere of the morning's sermon. And if soundproofing does not win the day for our determined carpenters, finances do. The initial outlay for wall-to-wall carpet is often less than that for equally beautiful wooden or (Italian) tiled floors, and the cost of upkeep is thought to be less (until, of course, one realizes that carpeting has to be replaced at considerable expense about every twenty years!) Wall-to-wall carpets kill congregational singing and responsive readings; even congregational rhythmic hand clapping and laughter sounds anemic when performed in a fully carpeted room. As far as the choir area is concerned, I can think of no justifiable reason to have it be carpeted. If you ever expect music to be sung or played form the choir area, the only reason to carpet it is if your congregation's musicians are so bad that you really don't want to hear them (or if everything is going to be amplified and therefore sound "canned" rather than fresh and live). (I have never seen a carpeted concert stage—never!)
A protestant church in the greater Vancouver area recently decided to replace its church's ageing wall-t0 wall carpet. Their clever organist asked whether the old carpet could possibly be removed and not be replaced for just one month so that the congregation could hear for itself whether this made andy difference to their sanctuary's acoustics. The congregation agreed to the experiment. Before the designated trial period had concluded, they voted to leave it uncarpeted; for the sounds of their piano, choir, and even congregational singing remarkably improved by the more resonate acoustics of their sanctuary. Choirs now beg to perform in this church; the contemporary praise songs have a congregational ring to them; and amplified speaking is heard with ease.
"And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid." (Ezra 3:11-12)
These days, as I sit in the pews of one after another of our new churches in British Columbia , the story told by Ezra comes to mind. In Ezra's day the older people wept when realizing how much less significant the new temple was than the one so gloriously constructed by Solomon. Today, we older people lament the passing of the more resonant acoustics of our older churches and with it the enthusiasm for congregational singing, regardless of repertoire.
A significant part of this acoustical transformation is directly attributed to our change in pew designs. The first (and perhaps least significant) change was that of adding padding to the seats of the pews. While padding the surfaces upon which we sit does not affect a room's acoustics when the congregation is seated in the fully-occupied church, it does dampen congregational singing once the congregation rises to its feet, for the padding partly absorbs the singing of those people standing just above it one row back.
Far greater problems arise, however, when our congregations wish to save money by purchasing pews or chairs which are covered with padding on the front and carpet on the back. By placing carpeting on the pew's back (the side supporting the hymnal rack), we are ensuring that the voices of the people sitting behind each pew will be partially absorbed by the surfaces of the pews in front of them. This one money-saving feature of our modern church pews works with unbelievable efficiency at deadening each and every voice while singing or reading aloud from the pews. If you wish to kill congregational singing, be sure to buy these carpeted pews. Better still, put your carpeted pew on top of your wall-to-wall floor carpet.
from Roots and branches, Vol. 11 No.2 (Summer,
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