Turn down the volume

A couple of years ago I had an argument with a friend about the loudness of music in church. He had just come back from a large convention with a great contemporary band. He had enjoyed the music, but complained that he could not hear himself sing. I intelligently responded that he was being a bit of a fuss-pot. But I’m starting to think differently.

I became morning music director at my church about 7 months ago. I was faced with two immediate challenges - a stressed music team who were burning out, and an aging catalogue of songs which we had struggled to refresh. Most of my initial energy went into addressing these two issues, and some of my previous posts talk about my strategies.

But things are a little different now. My team seem content and well motivated, and we’ve given our play-list a substantial makeover. This has given me time to look at other issues, and the one that concerns me most is congregational singing. I’ve realised that if I’m not encouraging people to sing, I’m not really accomplishing very much at all. I want our people to sing, and to sing loudly, enthusiastically and whole-heartedly.

How do we accomplish this? I’ve used a couple of strategies. As I’ve mentioned before, I repeat songs several weeks running to help the congregation learn them better. This certainly works - as they become more familiar with a song, the confidence level rises and so does the vocal volume.

But I’ve made another change, one that comes back to the argument I had with my friend. As the year has gone on, I’ve tried to turn down the volume. At first I just turned down the music, but later on I turned down the song leaders as well. We then went another step and tried playing “unplugged” on several occasions. My theory was this - the quieter the music, the louder people will want to sing.
I wish I could say that the strategy has worked brilliantly, but the truth is that results have been mixed. Some weeks the congregational voice has risen up to fill the void, and it has been terrific. Other weeks the music has felt a bit lifeless, and the congregation have responded with just a murmur.

There are other challenges, too. The next few weeks we are playing “Indescribable” - a big song that really needs a big sound. There are a few songs around like this. I’ve also recently had people request we add rockier, faster, rawer songs onto the play-list. One friend even told me the louder the music, the louder he would sing. It is clearly not possible to please everyone, but I take this feedback seriously, and I’ll continue to play around with the volume knob.
There are no simple answers to this problem - music directors need to get to know their congregation, and figure out what works for them. It’s worth the effort though. When the whole congregation are singing with full voices and full hearts, there is nothing like it - it is simply glorious.

Craig Schwarze heads Sydneyanglicans.net's music review team and contributes regular thoughts on day-to-day Christianity. He is an everyday Christian who lives in Sydney's inner west. By day he works in the IT industry; by night his interests are music, theology, writing and mixed martial arts. Click here to read Craig's blog, his everyday blog.

Comments (41)

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  • Robin Grant Jordan
    September 14, 10 - 7:18pm
    At the Journey the rationale for cranking up the volume is that church's primary ministry focus group--university students and other young adults wants to "feel" the music. They also do not want to hear themselves singing or others around them singing, if they chose to sing along with the vocalists in the band. They do not want to be embarrassed by hearing their own voices or the church staff does not want them put off by hearing the voices of the other people in the congregation. What we have is really not congregational singing. It is sing along with the band--parallel prayer, not common prayer.

    We have tried "unplugged" and have gotten good results. But it was not deliberate. We blew the speaker system.

    It may be a generation thing but to me the music is much too loud. I like to hear myself and other people singing. I like to blend my voice with theirs and become one voice. I also have an inner ear problem and damaged heaing from music that was too loud and I hear a constant hissing and crackling in one ear. Th extremely loud music hurts my inner ear and aggravates my hearing difficulties so I sit out the worship set.
  • Ian Tyrrell
    September 14, 10 - 9:00pm
    From a musician's point of view, I find I can play better with the volume up. With the volume up, I can choose to play soft or loud, giving me more control over my instrument. If I've been turned down, I only get one option, and can't provide much in the way of dynamics.

    That said, if people have to yell to the person next to them, then it's too loud.
  • Robert Denham
    September 14, 10 - 11:46pm
    Many years ago, just after the destruction of the dinosaurs, when I was a teenager, I remember reading David Wilkerson's books. He wanted the music cranked up in his pentecostal church, not for the sake of the musicians' abilities, nor for the sake of the faithful, but so he could open the windows to evangelise the neighbourhood. (Like the church bells calling people to come).
    Then I moved through thinking that I needed the music loud so I could be immersed in it, "feel it"...
    But at the same time rock concerts got way too loud. The best tickets to the rock concerts were the ones you got for parking in the wrong place 2km away from the venue, where you could actually hear the music & words.
    I love singing. I love good music. I lead the music singing in my church.
    & to end with a cheeky note, Jesus said in Matthew 19:12
    Some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; & others made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven.

    But why do we have to make ourselves & our congregations deaf for the kingdom of heaven because some want to crank the music up too much?
  • Chris Little
    September 14, 10 - 11:51pm
    Robin, you mention a couple of competeing preferences ('Young adults want to "feel" ...', 'I like to hear ...').

    It's good to have asked people 'What do you like?' I wish I better knew the answer to this for where I am.

    But I think there's a second question, 'What would God like us to like in music?' Or to put it differently, 'How do we all need to educate our likes by the pattern of God's word?'

    I'm convnced that biblical singing stresses the common voice and mutual involvement - and that great volume is a direct enemy to this. Loudness creates aural walls between us, I think, effectively justifying our wants because it allows us to practice anything we desire in 'our own space'.
  • Mark Williamson
    September 15, 10 - 12:56am
    Do we need to encourage our congregations to 'repent' of singing softly?
  • Simon Godden
    September 15, 10 - 4:33am
    Glad to see you raising this issue Craig. I think I made a comment along these lines in relation to another of your articles earlier in the year. For those that don't like to hear themselves singing, the solution I guess could always be to sing softer. However, for those (and I suspect in churches they are in the majority) who do like to hear their voices blend with those around them, they have no options once the sound levels get too high. It might be an interesting exercise to get hold of a sound meter and test the sound levels during a song. There are a number of cheap iPhone apps (eg. dBVolmMeter) that will do the job to at least an indicative level. In industry today, no matter how long the exposure, ear protection must be worn if levels exceed 85dB. I'm sure there are lots of churches where the levels are well over 85dB.
  • Duncan Maitland
    September 15, 10 - 5:31am
    Hearing damage isn't really a concern for your average church service. The 85dB(A) threshold starts to apply if exposure is constant over a period of eight hours; try holding an SPL meter in the church hall while everyone's having morning tea and you'll probably find it's above 90dB(A).

    I've thought about the issue a lot and I find that there are always strong opinions either way. The only conclusion I can come to is that we all need to learn to be content, however loud and in whatever style the music is, and trust and pray for the people in charge of making those decisions.

    However, I agree with Chris that mutual involvement in music is a valuable part of fellowship. I'm just not sure that too many others think that way.
  • Jen Wright
    September 15, 10 - 5:41am
    We are working our way through this issue. We had some weeks where I felt the music was way too loud but, when I mentioned it (in my role as overseer of music) to the sound guy, was told it was all a matter of preference. I was convinced this is not always true when one week the overheads were wrong and the congregation stopped singing - and the band had no idea. The music was so loud that neither the musicians, nor the song leaders (who were facing the congregation!) knew that we had all stopped. I thoughts that was rather telling...
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 7:26am
    @Robin - some helpful thoughts there, thanks. How did the younger crowd react to the "unplugged" set?
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 7:27am
    @Ian - isn't front of house volume controlled through the PA desk at your church?
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 7:27am
    @Robert - why indeed? What's the volume like at your church? Does it vary across the different services?
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 7:28am
    @Chris - does Psalm 150 challenge your thesis about God's preference for voices over instruments?
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 7:29am
    @Mark - I wonder... I wouldn't like to put "stop singing softly" in the same category as "stop committing adultery"
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 7:30am
    @Simon - that's a good point. It's now very easy for churches to test their own audio levels. I might try and do that in my own congregation. It would be interesting to see what people might come up with as the "optimal" level...
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 7:31am
    @Duncan - agreed. Consultation and congregational involvement are key. What is the best way to facilitate this?
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 7:32am
    @Jen - good luck with that. I'd be interested to hear how it all turns out.
  • David Ball
    September 15, 10 - 9:00am
    Craig - here's one for you from my recent experience file. A few Sundays ago, most members of the regular band (loud, lots of electric guitar and drums) from the service I attend were up at Engage, so a much quieter and gentler acoustic band (vocals and acoustic guitars only) from another service filled in instead.

    The result was great, with the congregation singing along with great gusto, and being able to be heard (for a change!). However, I'm not convinced that this effect would be sustained if the quiet band were to play every week, as I suspect that congregational volume would drop after a while to the much quieter level that can be heard at the quiet band's usual service. So perhaps the optimal solution is to mix it up a bit (pun not intended) from one week to the next...
  • Duncan Maitland
    September 15, 10 - 9:16am
    Regarding the PA system, volume is actually more of an issue for the band leader and musicians than it is for the PA operator. In your average church service and with your average PA system, the band actually makes most of the noise by themselves; the PA is just amplifying those instruments that need to be amplified and adding what it needs to produce a musically coherent sound. Turning it down generally doesn't make it much softer, but it does affect the overall mix in a negative way. (Of course, this depends to a great extent on the gear that you have and the level of skill of your operators.)

    Also, the level that each individual musician plays at is affected by all the other musicians. For example, if the drummer is playing too loud then the acoustic guitarist will need a higher foldback level and the electric guitarist will need to turn their amplifier up. Simply turning down foldback or asking an individual player to turn their amplifier down doesn't solve the problem; it actually makes things worse because the musicians can't hear what they're playing.

    That is, getting the volume right is a collaborative effort involving all the musicians and the PA operator.
  • Duncan Maitland
    September 15, 10 - 9:36am
    Following on from that, it's my opinion that the PA operator should be treated as part of the music team and submit first to the authority of the music leader. That's not to say that the PA operator doesn't also submit to the leader of the congregation or to the other church leaders; neither to say that their particular knowledge and skill should not be valued.

    Rather, the mixing console should be thought of as a musical instrument and the role of PA operator thought of as a musical rather than a technical role.

    Also, it assists in establishing a chain of command. PA operators will often receive conflicting requests from the music team and other church staff, or even members of the congregation. If there is a problem it needs to be resolved so that everyone involved is aware. If, for example, the stage noise is too loud and a minister asks in the middle of the service that the foldback be turned down then that can drastically affect the musicians' ability to play properly.

    Sorry. I'll get off my hobby horse now :)
  • Duncan Maitland
    September 15, 10 - 9:47am
    Regarding congregational involvement - I think speaking to the congregation about what music people like is a good thing, but I think it is mainly people in the congregation that need to learn to be content with whatever decisions are made. I'm including myself in this too. If there was a bible-based church with a congregation my age that played old hymns on the organ then I'd be there; on the other hand, I just think that's a really lame reason for me to move churches!
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 1:09pm
    @David - I had a pretty similar experience. I'm beginning to think, like you, that I need to mix the unplugged with a more traditional rock sound.
  • Ian Tyrrell
    September 15, 10 - 8:10pm
    @Craig - isn't front of house volume controlled through the PA desk at your church?

    Yes and no.
    It is for singers and most instruments.
    Drums not, and the bass player (me) controls his or her own amp.
    Sometimes the sound guys don't seem to notice that the congregation has to yell to the people next to themselves just to have a conversation...
  • Martin (Enkidu) Shields
    September 15, 10 - 9:42pm
    Unsurprisingly others have had thoughts on these matters, in particular see <a href="http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/february/14.50.html">this article</a> from CT.
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 9:49pm
    Thanks Martin, some good thoughts there. The Briefing also ran something similar by Mike Raiter (I think).

    My major gripe with articles such as these is that they paint the musos as the bad guys, oppressing the poor congregation. I think this is a destructive idea, and dreadful for the morale of our musicians. Most of the musos I've encountered in church are genuinely trying to make the music work well - they are not driven by an egotistical need to flatten the congregation with their sound.

    It's just that good music in church is very hard to do... We are all trying our best...
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 15, 10 - 9:50pm
    (Not having a go at you, by the way, Martin - just some subtext in the article)
  • David Ashton
    September 15, 10 - 10:28pm
    Hooray! I have been attempting to get the message about volume across for some years.

    If the music is loud and you can't hear yourself let alone the people next to you, you don't enjoy it, and it's not encouraging. I also think it doesn't rate as "worship".

    One of the joys brought in by the Reformation was the inclusion of the congregation in the process of "worship" in church. Loud music reduces our participation to almost nil. Music is meant to accompany the congregation, not be a performance.

    I used to be one of the bods on the mixer/amplifier at Barnie's on Broadway, which was set up the back and gave us a good idea of the sound levels. I used to turn both the music and the leaders down to where they could be heard but did not dominate the singing (particularly when Rob Forsythe was leading the service!).

    On the occasions at gatherings when the band has been loud I have asked them to turn it down but usually I am looked at in scorn or just ignored. They seem to think that music in church has to be at public performance levels - which is bad for our hearing anyway - or it's not good enough.

    Singing in church or gatherings is about the content of the songs, not just the music.

    One personal suggestion: get rid of the drum kit!
  • Duncan Maitland
    September 16, 10 - 2:04am
    David, I don't want to dismiss what you're saying, but I do want to suggest that the conflict between the sound team and the music team can be a great source of ungodly tension.

    That's the main reason why I suggest establishing the authority of the music leader and a direct working relationship between the music and the sound team; otherwise, without any authority on the matter, arguments will keep on happening until one side just simply gives up, and relationships are soured. I know this because I've been there many times and said things I shouldn't have in the stress of the moment. To clarify, that isn't to say that the music team can play as loud as they like. They need to submit to the church leadership when they give direction about style or volume.

    I'm involved in mixing bands in a variety of church and non-church situations, so my experience differs from most people who operate church sound from week to week. However, I always find things go much smoother and the overall result is better when I put my personal preferences aside and mix according to the sound the band wants to create.

    Re. getting rid of the drum kit, I quite like your suggestion. I think that I best enjoy church singing when there is just a single acoustic guitar.
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 16, 10 - 2:48am
    <i>One personal suggestion: get rid of the drum kit!</i>

    I think percussion is pretty important...not necessarily drums, of course...

    Chris, what is the typical musical lineup in your church?
  • Jen Wright
    September 16, 10 - 6:06am
    We have a music co-ordinator who is keen to experiment with less sound. We have had some weeks with just guitars (lovely) and we also have a drummer who sometimes uses bongos and some other African drum (don't know the name) which is subtle but very beautiful.I think it helps to mix it up a little and let the type of music and words for each song dictate what sort of 'sound' we'll create. It takes thought, knowledge and humility in the band, but works great. And the band love having the variety. The issue is to keep it going....
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 16, 10 - 7:12am
    The african drum is probably the "djembe" which is pretty popular in churches.

    We've done something similar, but it's been a bit hit and miss (more hit than miss, I think). Some songs just don't work well without a strong driving rhythm section. By contrast, some songs work beautifully well.

    I was moving my catalog toward songs that would work well "unplugged", but I started to receive quite a lot of feedback that they wanted more upbeat, rockier songs. This is from a morning congregation, too. So I'm responding to that, though I'm feeling slightly uncertain about which direction I'll push things over the coming months. I will still try and have regular "unplugged" mornings, though...
  • Chris Little
    September 16, 10 - 12:12pm
    Craig, looks like I might be the Chris you were asking ... (I got all the previous comments by email update - no names attached!).

    Our typical setup is electric piano, guitar & bass, often electric drum kit. Sometimes a flute, too. We're in a school hall with no carpet or other softening texture.
  • Robin Grant Jordan
    September 17, 10 - 9:30pm

    We went acoustic and the young people really took to it. After that Jordan who was our worship leader at the time made a point of turning down the volume at certain points in a song so the congregation could hear themselves.
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 17, 10 - 11:12pm
    Thanks guys...

    @David, what is the music line-up at <i>your</i> church...

    @Robin, are you content with your music at the moment, or do you think it needs more work?
  • David Ashton
    September 18, 10 - 1:26am
    Craig, I'm not sure what you mean by line-up.

    We have a piano, acoustic guitar (plugged in!), along with a flute, or clarinet, or another guitar, depending on who is on the roster.

    We use a mixture of new and old songs.

    I have a CD of hymn tunes called New Engalnd Hymns, played by an American group, which is all acoustic and some old instruments are used. It is a delightful album with which you can sing along. I also have an album called "Sing Lustily" by Maddie Prior (from Steeleye Span), played on instruments used before electronic gadgetry, and you can sing along with it becuase you can HEAR the words and the music doesn't deafen you.

    Being brutally honest, I think the volume at which modern church music is played is an expression of the flesh and not the spirit.

    I found this article by Mike Raiter on the Matthias Media website (after I formed my own views, I admit), but it might prove of value.

  • Craig Schwarze
    September 18, 10 - 2:46am
    @David - thanks mate, and I'll check out those CDs you referred to.

    "I think the volume at which modern church music is played is an expression of the flesh and not the spirit."

    I think that is too harsh. All of the musicians I've known in church, virtually without exception, have had good intentions and a genuine desire to serve God and the congregation. It's just that the whole area is a bit of a minefield, and no one formula works for everyone.

    I read Mike's article. I liked his analysis, but I was unhappy with his blanket smack-down of church muso's at the end.
  • David Ashton
    September 18, 10 - 6:58am
    Graig, it's not meant to be harsh. In a lot of churches I've been to the music has been loud, and no pleading about volume has any effect. It is possible for people who have good intentions to be unwise about how they do something.

    Younger people in particular seem to assume that music has to be loud, no matter the context. It sometimes comes down to a matter of authority; they won't listen to the church leaders.

    Part of the issue is the drift away from truth to "feelings". The truth being expressed in the words comes second to the emotions. I know this is not the case across all churches, but some I've been in have simply not been aware of the significance of truth over emotion.

    That's one reason why it is necessary for leaders to oversee all aspects of worship. Some churches just leace it up to the young people and never try to direct or lead them.

    Perhaps I'm just tired and grumpy also....
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 18, 10 - 10:05am
    That's one reason why it is necessary for leaders to oversee all aspects of worship.

    The pastor you mean, or something else?
  • David Ashton
    September 18, 10 - 10:21am
    I assume you have leaders in your church in addition to the pastor?
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 18, 10 - 10:29am
    Well yeah - the music director (myself) being one of those...
  • Robin Grant Jordan
    September 18, 10 - 8:01pm
    We have a great band and great vocalists and good selection of songs. Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. There always is.
  • David Ashton
    September 20, 10 - 1:22am
    Improvement in which direction?