Acoustic Challenges in Worship-Space Design

Worship is a multisensory activity, employing sights, sounds, scents, and tastes that immerse individuals in both personal devotion and communal action. Particularly during sung and spoken parts of a service, the assembly actively participates together in prayer and praise. This shared experience of speech and song builds community and draws all into the closer presence of God and of each other. Song gives an added dimension and artistic rendition to texts. It has the capacity to connect worshipers not only with each other in the here and now, but also with others across time and space.

For song to happen during worship, a great company of individuals must contribute to the interaction. These include not only the worshipers and leaders joined together at the moment in a hymn, psalm, or canticle on any given Sunday. The great company also includes composers, text-writers and poets, printers, publishers and editors, instrumentalists, singers and directors, instrument makers and tuners. These and a host of others all have added their contribution, even from across decades, so that a hymn can be sung in the great “today” of the liturgy.

Why Buildings Matter

A key element in giving life and vitality to song and to creating an environment that invites and encourages all to sing (even those who may be reticent) is the architectural-acoustical space that envelopes assembled worshipers. An architectural environment and its acoustical character can inhibit or encourage song. An environment that distributes sound energy evenly throughout a room and that has a reverberation period that blends sound energy and allows all participants to hear each other can inspire and magnify song. It opens up new dimensions of participation. An environment that obstructs, separates, and absorbs sound energy away from the assembly, on the other hand, can stifle, dampen, and deaden the song, even of those most inclined to enthusiastic participation.

The creative designs of architects and acousticians thus have the potential to make music and song an inspiring, community-building part of worship. The geometric form and size of a room, the location of furnishings, instruments, and people, and the interior finish materials (sound-absorbing, -reflecting, or -diffusing) all contribute to the success or failure of song-supportive acoustics. Long and tall “shoe-box”- shaped rooms with generous cubic-air volumes remain key ingredients in acoustic success [see Figure 1]. Round, conical, “fan,” pyramidal, and square geometric forms with limited air volumes are typically not conducive to good song and participatory acoustics. The placement of musical instruments, leaders, and assembly, so that sound can be projected directly and without obstruction to and from all, is also important to acoustic success. An appropriate ratio of sound-reflective and sound-diffusing materials in a room for a “live” reverberation is also necessary, as is the absence of intruding noise and acoustic anomalies. Given these many variables, the task of achieving a good architectural and acoustic design can be difficult. In addition, there are often societal and functional challenges to achieving a song-supportive worship space today.

Figure 1: Christ Presbyterian Church, Madison, Wisconsin

Example of a well-proportioned geometric form and air volume. Interior-finish surfaces are primarily reflective and diffusive of sound, with an approximate 2.0-second reverberation period that enables liturgical song. Ensembles that lead music in both traditional and contemporary styles sound originate on the long axis of the room.

View toward Chancel
View toward Chancel
View toward Traditional Music Gallery













Negotiating the Challenges

The first challenge may be the apparently reduced societal interest and aptitude for involvement in song. Communal singing, in either secular or sacred settings, is less frequent today than it was in our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Music is more often heard and observed than participated in. The public even seems to have difficulty singing “Happy Birthday” in tune! Music education is often one of the first victims of school budget cuts. Given these realities, it is essential that the church find ways to support and enhance the song of the faithful. The biblical directive to “sing unto the Lord” is clear, and the inspirational and community-building benefits of group singing and speech during worship are obvious. Communities that fail to support worship and song with commodious architectural and acoustic environments place the heritage and future of corporate worship at risk. Mary sang when her cousin Elizabeth greeted her as “blessed.” The angelic host sang at Jesus’ birth. The angels sing around the throne of heaven. The disciples sang a hymn before they went out. We must do likewise.

Another challenge is the current nature of congregational song itself. The standard and traditional hymn form, while very much alive and well, is not the only musical style used in worship by many congregations today. Gospel, spiritual, contemporary, jazz, ethnic, and call-and-response, are but a few of the musical forms used in worship — often by the same congregation in the same building and during the same service. The diversity of styles, instrumentation, and tempi represented in congregational song today become scientific and design challenges. Although the goal of facilitating musical participation by the assembly remains the same across the stylistic soundscape, the reality is that these musical types require different reverberation periods and settings for best rendition. Up-tempo and percussive music will need shorter reverberation periods, while melodic and organ-oriented hymnody is best with generous reverberation periods. Some instruments are “acoustic” and resonate with air, such as organ pipes, strings, woodwinds, and brass. Other instruments, such as electric guitars and keyboards, require electronic systems to create tone. Variable environments, with movable sound-reflective or sound-absorptive features that can shorten or lengthen the reverberation period in a room and shift the distribution and diffusion of sound, are helpful tools in meeting diverse musical and acoustic needs in a room [see Figure 2].

Figure 2: The Community Church of Vero Beach, Florida

Wall and ceiling treatments are primarily sound-reflective and sound-diffusing, so that the room is supportive of congregational song. Retractable draperies increase or decrease the reverberation period to tailor the room to different musical styles and occupancy rates. 

Acoustic Drapery Retracted
Acoustic Drapery Exposed

















Negotiating the Challenges

Lack of understanding or appreciation and funding challenges can often work against supportive architectural and acoustic settings for worship. Attitudes such as “It doesn’t matter. Who can hear or appreciate good or bad acoustics anyway?” or “Good acoustics are for the Carnegie Hall crowd, not for us” or “It only needs to be ‘good enough for church’” all lead to less than noble or functional worship spaces. The fact is that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. The worship of the Lord should receive “first fruits.” Lost opportunities do matter and can be harmful by diminishing inspiration and not being inviting. The reactions and future choices of a visitor or “seeker” at worship can be significantly influenced either by dull and lifeless, or by vibrant and active liturgy and song. Long-term church members may not be able to verbalize their reactions to liturgical song, but dull or vibrant perceptions indeed have an effect. It may be easier to exclude these factors from building budgets because acoustics, music, and liturgical song are ephemeral, unlike bricks and mortar.

A common current practice is that of “value engineering” a design after a project price quotation is received. To lower project costs, under a “value engineering” plan, apparently unnecessary features are skimmed away from a design. The thick and dense gypsum board walls that reinforce low-frequency sound energy, the hard-surface flooring that aids in reverberation, and the lined HVAC ducts that suppress background noise might be replaced with lower-cost thin walls, carpeted floors, and hard ducts. The result is a room that has poor musical presence, suppresses liturgical song, and magnifies unwanted noise. While realistic budgets are essential, so is the need for a worship environment that meets its functional goals.

Inappropriate reliance on technology can also create challenges to congregational song. A worship space might be viewed mistakenly as only a lecture and concert hall, where the single acoustic goal is to deliver electronically reinforced speech and music to the “audience” in the “auditorium.” Extensive systems can be designed and installed to accomplish high-energy sound projection. To be sure, the speech of sermon, lessons, prayers, and instrumental and vocal music must be well presented to worshipers. Often forgotten in this approach, however, is the fact that the congregation’s interaction in liturgy and song is fundamental to worship and community. The members of the assembly must hear each other well and not be only recipients of spoken and sung presentations [see Figure 3]. Further, the assembly must not be overwhelmed by excessive amounts of “lead” sound during their participation. While electronic room-reverberation simulation technologies have been invented, these systems cannot replace the truthful sounds of human voices traveling, blending, and reinforcing each other in the life-giving air of a reverberant architectural space. More speakers and microphones cannot supplant human interaction and participation.

Figure 3: Harvey Brown Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Kentucky (second photo by Eric Wolfram)

Reverberation period was too low and singing diminished before renovations; carpeted flooring and soft-wood ceiling materials absorbed sound energy even though the geometric form and air volume were good. The building redesign with hard-surface flooring and sound-reflective ceiling treatments increased the reverberation period to be song-supportive. Pews are now canted to draw worshipers together.













Best Practices

What are the architectural and acoustic factors that enable and enhance the song of God’s people at worship? Important ingredients, in appropriate proportion and relationship, include:

  • A generous cubic air volume
  • An enhancing and enveloping geometric building form
  • Good proximity and location of worshipers, leaders, musicians, instruments, and furnishings
  • An appropriate ratio of sound-reflective and sound-diffusive interior finish materials and surfaces
  • The control and absence of interrupting noise and acoustic anomalies
  • Appropriate use of electronic technologies
  • A means and methodology of accommodating differing musical styles and forms within the same room
  • Realistic project goals and budgets
  • A keen appreciation of corporate worship, prayer, praise and song as a prized heritage, present gift, and future investment for a community.

Whatever the size of a worship space or the stylistic music leanings of a faith community, there is a fundamental biblical and liturgical need for worshipers to participate together in song. The architectural and acoustical design details that facilitate this participation are what distinguish a worship space from other places of public assembly. In the worship space the assembled faithful are not just receivers and observers of speech and music; they are active participants in sung and spoken liturgy. It is therefore a high priority to design a worship environment that has the capacity to support and encourage the singing of all. Recognition of this priority, and careful attention to the acoustic-design factors described above, can result in functional, elegant, innovative, and inspirational environments that encourage faith communities to worship with songs of prayer and praise.


Scott R. Riedel is president of Scott R. Riedel & Associates, Ltd., an acoustics and organ design consultation firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (, specializing in sacred space projects nationwide. He has served as Organist-Choirmaster for Lutheran and Episcopal parishes, and taught the course, “Science of Acoustics,” at Columbia College in Chicago. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Architecture and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. His memberships and/or leadership positions include the American Guild of Organists, Royal School of Church Music, British Institute of Organ Studies, Acoustical Society of America, and American Institute of Architects.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Except where noted, all photos by Scott Riedel.

Recommended Citation: Riedel, Scott R. (2014) “Acoustic Challenges in Worship Space Design,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 16.
Available at:

View article as a PDF: Acoustic Challenges in Worship Space Design

The Body That Sings

This essay is an edited and abbreviated version of “The Health of the Human Body and Acts of Communal Singing in Worship,” a talk given at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s Congregations Project Seminar on June 21, 2014. The theme of the 2014 Congregations Project was “The Human Body and the Body of Christ.”

When I was asked, as a nurse, to offer a workshop for the Congregations Project “on health and wellness as dimensions of the Christian life,” I was told that the theme was embodiment. My mind did not immediately turn to the pages of nursing research on wellness in community, but to my childhood memories of being raised in American Pentecostalism.

Ours was a little church in Southern California, near the birthplace of the movement in Los Angeles. There, at the Azusa Street Mission, Brother Seymour, an African American, preached and founded Pentecostalism.[1] Nurtured by people who had sat under Brother Seymour’s preaching at Azusa Street, our church took great pride in that heritage. Although my memories begin nearly seventy years after the origins of the Pentecostal movement, older people in our church exhorted us to worship in the way that Brother Seymour had taught. We sang, we shouted, we danced, we spoke in tongues, and we were slain in the Spirit; that is, we used the whole of our bodies in worship, and we did it until we were physically worn out. When I hear the words embodiment, Christian life, and community, my mind turns to memories of my childhood church community and its embodied style of worship — a style of worship in which the movements, the voice, and the posture of body were central.

The body, the nurse-researcher in me says, is a singular organism made up of many systems that work together in awesome and mysterious, yet scientifically understandable, ways. Yet, when I think of the body as a philosopher of religion, I think of Paul’s use of the human body as a metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12:12: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (RSV). Paul goes on to strain the metaphor; but when I focus just on the opening phrase of the sentence that begins verse 13 — “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” — I am able to get past the strain. It suggests that, though we are many, we are baptized into the one commonality of the Christian life. With this commonality in mind I am able to ask, as a nurse, whether there is a relationship between health and wellness as dimensions of the Christian life, and the communal aspect of that life.

Some General Observations

Let me say something general about the extensive literature on religion and health. Harold Koenig offers three major theoretical paths through which religion can contribute to better health:

  • as a complex set of coping methods helping the individual to handle psychological stress and its physiological consequences;
  • as a pro-social force giving the opportunity to give and receive social support;
  • as a method of behavioral control requiring and supporting the individual in avoidance of health-destructive behaviors, such as hazardous drinking, illicit drug use, or excessive eating.[2]

The nurse-researcher in me understands these theoretical paths as paths that the scientist can study, since they involve variables that can be measured. But the worshiper in me, instead of following theoretical paths, asks:

  • Where is the human body in communal acts of worship?
  • Where is the communal body of worshipers?

Medical scientists gain clinical knowledge about human health from observations at the laboratory bench and through the collective statistics of randomized controlled trials in which one group gets an intervention and another group does not. Such trials, however, will not help us when it comes to understanding the human body in communal acts of worship. If one believes that those acts are what faithful Christians do, one cannot in good conscience randomize some Christians to engage in them and others not. We cannot ask faithful people to go into a control arm of an intervention trial and stop being faithful, so the usual methods of gaining clinical knowledge are not available in studying communal acts of worship.

Some researchers, using epidemiological methods such as large population-based surveys, have found some association between religious practice and health. For example, researchers in California have used the 2003 California Health Survey of 41,873 people to ask whether attending worship influenced health behaviors. They found that engagement in healthy lifestyle behaviors significantly increased among those who reported attending worship, compared to those who do not attend worship — for all population groups, including gender, race, and ethnicity.[3] And researchers in Hungary found that practicing religion in that post-Communist country was associated with better mental and physical health.[4] Powerful though these studies are, they still miss the element of the human body in communal acts of worship.

What Happens in Worship

To get a handle on the human body in collective acts of worship, I went looking in the nursing literature and found an article by one of nursing’s intellectual giants, Patricia Benner, which suggests that the human body allows for knowledge that is not sought by epidemiologists and researchers, whether bench or clinical. She says that embodiment allows for perceptual apprehension of our commonly inhabited worlds. Embodiment, that is, allows us to meet one another in a common world (a shared logical space), and it allows us to understand one another through our perceptual apprehension of one another in that common world (of shared logic).[5]

To engage in communal acts of worship is to inhabit a common world. Through our perceptual apprehension of one another through acts of worship, we learn about our bodies and act upon this knowledge to improve human health.

The scholarly literature on communal singing provides insights about such singing as an act of worship. Krause and Hayward investigated the relationship between religious music and health over three years among 1,024 adults of sixty-six years and older. They report on four findings that create a sort of syllogism:

  • people who attend worship services more often reported stronger emotional reactions to religious music;
  • those who were more emotionally involved with religious music were more likely to feel a close sense of connectedness with other people;
  • those who reported feeling more closely connected with others were more hopeful about the future; and
  • those who reported feeling more hopeful about the future were more likely to rate their health more favorably over the three years.[6]

Krause and Hayward did not claim that attending worship services in which there is religious music improves human health. Rather, they said that individuals who attend worship services in which there is religious music rated their health more favorably. These worshipers may have had poor health, and surely, some of them in a sample of this size and age must have had chronic illness, though Krause and Hayward do not tell us. But individuals in this study perceptually apprehended the common world brought on by religious music, and this perceptual apprehension enabled them to come to some collective knowledge of hope, regardless of the clinical facts they may have faced. The many came together as one body and there, in the acts of that common body, knew the hope of their faith which, although they may have had illness, inspired them to think favorably about their health. This was the second step in my process of thinking that we learn about how to improve human health through the communal acts of worship: through faithful worship we learn hope, hope that transcends the reality of the facts of human frailty and illness.

Singing Promotes Well-Being

Krause and Hayward’s focus on religious music sent me on another hunt in the literature, to discover the effect of music on human health. I found what you all may very well already know: singing promotes well-being. Grape and colleagues enrolled eight amateur and eight professional singers in a study using electrocardiograms to study the effect of thirty minutes of singing on singers’ hearts. They took blood samples before and after singing to measure the effect on markers of inflammation and hormones in the blood. Analysis of the electrocardiograms suggested that singing promoted cardio-physiological fitness. This fitness was most evident among the professional singers. However, markers of inflammation decreased after singing among the amateur singers, and the hormone that produces feelings of love and trust, oxytocin, increased among all the singers after singing for thirty minutes. Amateur singers reported increasing joy and elatedness after the thirty minutes of singing, and all singers reported more energy and relaxation.[7]

Singing in communal acts of worship thus can improve our heart function, decrease inflammation in our bodies, and produce a hormone that causes us to bond with each other. During the physiologic act of common singing, through the release of oxytocin, those who sing learn to trust each other. So this was the third step in my process of thinking that we learn about how to improve human health through communal acts of worship: the act of common singing improves our cardiac function, lowers inflammation, and affects our physiology such that we come to love and trust each other. In this common love and trust the many voices become one choir, one community, one body of Christ.

A Physico-Theological Lesson

We Pentecostals had figured it out a long time ago. We sang as one, shouted as one, danced as one, spoke in tongues as one, and let the Spirit overcome us as one. The theme of Christian unity was important for American Pentecostals and John 17:21 was considered a key verse: “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us….” (KJV).[8] Through acts of communal singing our very physiology bears witness to God’s handiwork among us and our oneness as the body of Christ.

Koenig posits religion as a complex set of coping mechanisms, a pro-social force, and a method of behavioral control. But the communal acts of worship are more than that: they open up for worshipers a common world in which we gain knowledge of our oneness. Vickhoff and associates measured the heart rate of singers while humming a single tone, singing a hymn, and then singing a slow mantra.[9] They found that song structure and heart rate variability are connected. When singers sang the same regular song structures in unison, their hearts accelerated and decelerated at the same time — as one. The experiment concluded that the “external and visible joint action” of singing in unison “corresponds to an internal and biological joint action.” [10]

Acts of communal singing may shape our views of our health. They may inspire in us hope that transcends disease and discomfort. They may improve our cardio-physiologic fitness, reduce inflammation in our bodies, and release a hormone that causes us to bond with each other. Most important, however, acts of communal singing in worship create the common world in which we learn the physico-theological lesson of our embodiment: though many, we are the one body of Christ.

Mark Lazenby, an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner, is assistant professor of nursing and core faculty on the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale University.  After he received his M.S.N. from Yale in 2009, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the King Hussein Cancer Center, Amman, Jordan, where he conducted research on the spiritual well-being of Muslims who were in treatment for cancer. He also holds a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Boston University. He has ongoing projects on strengthening palliative care nursing in Botswana, and developing a spiritually sensitive palliative care intervention for Muslims who are in treatment for cancer.



[1] Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M. van der Maas, The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, revised and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House): xxxi.

[2] Harold G.Koenig, “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications,” International Scholarly Research Notices Psychiatry (2012): 278730. doi: 10.5402/2012/278730.

[3] Julia T. Caldwell and Lois M. Takahashi, “Does Attending Worship Mitigate Racial/Ethnic Discrimination in Influencing Health Behaviors? Results From an Analysis of the California Health Interview Survey,” Health Education & Behavior, (2014): 406-413.

[4] Barna Konkolÿ Thege,  János Pilling,  András Székely, and Mária S. Kopp, “Relationship Between Religiosity and Health: Evidence from a Post-Communist Country,” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 20, no. 4 (2013): 477–86.

[5] Patricia Benner, “The Roles of Embodiment, Emotion and Lifeworld for Rationality and Agency in Nursing Practice,” Nursing Philosophy 1, no. 1 (2000): 5–19.

[6] Neal Krause and R. David Hayward, “Religious Music and Health in Late Life: A Longitudinal Investigation,” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 24, no. 1 (2014): 47-63.

[7] Christina Grape, Maria Sandgren, Lars-Olof Hansson, Mats Ericson, and Tores Theorell,“Does Singing Promote Well-Being? An Empirical Study of Professional and Amateur Singers During a Singing Lesson,” Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science 38, no. 1 (2003): 65–74.

[8] Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1980), xxvi.

[9] Björn Vickhoff, Helge Malmgren, Rickard  Åstrom, Gunnar Nyberg, Seth-Reino Ekström, Mathias Engwall, Johan Snygg, Michael Nilsson, Rebecka Jörnsten, “Music Structure Determines Heart Rate Variability of Singers,” Frontiers in Psychology  4 (2013): 334.

[10] Vickhoff et al., “Music Structure,” 13.



This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation:Lazenby, Mark (2014) “The Body That Sings,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 6.
Available at:

View article as a PDF: The Body That Sings