The musical accompaniment to our congregational worship can often be too loud. This can be true in contemporary and traditional settings. I have heard praise bands who seem to think a louder volume is more spiritual and I have heard organs and orchestras who can compete on the same volume level. How does one determine the proper volume level of accompaniment for congregational singing? My basic belief is that if the accompaniment is so loud that the singer in the congregation can not hear himself sing or those around him sing – then the accompaniment is too loud. I recently read a book by Rick Muchow, worship pastor at Saddleback Community Church, that had a chapter titled: “How loud is too loud.” I thought he made a number of excellent points on this topic.
1. The music is too loud when the volume distracts from worship. Muchow relates about a service where the congregational singing was wonderful until the organist got to the last verse. At this verse the organist did a showy demonstration and greatly increased the volume of the organ. Muchow said everyone began to take notice of the organist and the attention was no longer on the text of the song. He says “the volume of the music is just right when it is not noticed. Our bodies should feel the music, not notice the volume.”
2. The music is too loud when it is no longer musical. Muchow says that “high volume is not a synonym for excellence. Beginning musicians often try to use loud volume to make up for a lack of accuracy and practice – as if the louder they play, the better their musicianship will sound.” Muchow also shares about the plight of other musicians on stage when one instrument is too loud – they also turn up their volume to hear themselves. Muchow suggests that musicians should seek to have varying dynamics in their music. “When the music is only one volume, whether too loud or soft, it becomes less musical and has less impact. Using dynamics is a great way to improve communication.”
3. The music is too loud when it causes hearing loss. Muchow states that “repeated exposure to loud noise can cause permanent damage and hearing loss. If people need to shout to be heard above the music, then the volume is too loud.” Muchow uses a decibel meter at his sound board to monitor the level of the volume in rehearsals and services. He believes the volume limit should be at 96 decibels (similar to a hand drill or spray painter or bulldozer). A typical conversation is at 60 decibels while rock concerts are normally at 130-140 decibels. Muchow says that “it would take continuous exposure to sounds at 100 decibels – such as a very loud worship band and an energetic teacher with a microphone – for about one to two hours, the average length of a church service, to cause permanent hearing loss. Church musicians are at more risk than the rest of the congregation because they are closer to the sound and are exposed to the volume longer. (p. 170-173)
I think Muchow makes some great points about sound levels for worship music. I am quite aware of this since I work with a worship band a couple times a week and participate in worship services. I want to protect my musicians’ ears and encourage my congregation to sing. Loud music volumes can cause a congregation to quit singing and just listen. At this point the worship service turns into a performance.
The Rick Muchow’s The Worship Answer Book, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006, ISBN 4041-0355-4) is a quick read for any worship leader wanting to refresh his knowledge of the philosophy and practice of biblical worship.