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Church Sound: How To Make Sure Your Choir Is Heard

Can you hear the choir? It’s a common problem, and one that doesn’t have to exist. It helps to get to the root of the situation and then take the right steps to get it fixed. A logical approach, with specifics, can help.

By Dale Alexander May 28, 2012

The question that is at the top of the list when we talk to pastors and music ministers: Why can’t we hear the choir?

For a church with an active choir ministry this can be one of the most volatile challenges they have to deal with. The solution to the problem is usually not a simple one. In many evangelical churches, the choir is still an extremely important element of the worship service although the musical styles have evolved from simple piano accompaniment to a rhythm section or even a full-blown orchestra.

If you can’t hear the choir during the worship service, it usually has to do with the acoustic signature of the platform area. There are typically many factors that contribute to the problem.

The root problem is usually a product of one or both of the following factors.

1) The architecture of the worship center and the church’s acoustic requirements at the time the building was constructed are not in concert.

2) The building design team did not put a priority on the acoustic signature/performance of the new worship center. All too often the way the room “looks” drives the design, thus function follows form.

In a perfect world (acoustically speaking) we would always have the form follow the function. This exposes the age-old conflict between Architects and Acousticians. When I was in college taking acoustics classes we had a text book titled “Deaf Architects and Blind Acousticians” by Robert E. Apfel. This title over-simplifies the problem a little but is really an accurate model of many design teams working on new church worship centers today.

For many decades, the worship service in almost all evangelical churches was choir based, with a piano and sometimes an organ accompaniment. In these churches we found it interesting that many were actually designed with an acoustician on the design team.

The choir was typically large enough to balance with the piano and organ and didn’t need a lot of reinforcement. The choir was usually in an open area at the rear of the platform with no side walls or ceiling. Many times the rear (upstage) wall and/or the ceiling would be angled to thrust or reflect the choir sound into the main area of the worship center. The platforms were typically constructed of hard woods or other sound reflective materials to amplify the sound from the platform via early reflections.

Many of these church buildings would have very high reflective ceilings and sound reflective surfaces on the walls. This would increase the reverberation time in the room making the sound of the organ and choir swim around in the room giving the musical piece a sense of majesty. A choir and/or organ concert performed in such a space can be a truly exhilarating experience that you won’t soon forget.

In more recent years, since the early 1980s, there have been many new worship centers designed and built to look like the older style worship centers because “that is what a church is suppose to look like”. The problem with this type of thinking and construction is that the church’s musical requirements have changed drastically over the last 20 years.

The church has moved from the choir with piano and/or organ to a much more contemporary worship style incorporating percussion, amplified instruments and brass sections. The sheer volume from these instruments is almost impossible for a church choir to overcome.

Add to these instruments strings and woodwinds, and the choir doesn’t stand a chance of being heard. There are a few churches that have been able to make this work to some degree but not without at least some acoustic modifications to the platform area.

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