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Requirements for Church Music

By Charles Hendrickson

Music in the church is a special presentation requiring thought and planning.  To arrange the musical forces for best results is not always possible, but an understanding of good musical practice is essential.  The following guidelines may assist church musicians, authorities, and architects in providing for good music in the church.

Though they may be led by paid musical professionals, most church music groups are composed of dedicated and competent amateurs.  To help these participants do their best, so that the worship service is enhanced, requires care and coordination.  With the proper support and arrangement of forces, church music can be appropriate and rewarding.  Worship is both music and the spoken word. 

The challenge of church music is to inspire and encourage the congregation.  When the physical requirements for good music are provided, the choir, organ, and other instruments will sound their best and lead the congregation to participate and sing at their best.  The goal of church music is to support the entire gathered group in worship. 

No professional orchestra or choir would consent to perform every week from off-stage, or be placed in a corner or where their sound could not be directly heard by the audience.  We place the best professional groups at front center on a hard flat, open, unobstructed floor.  We usually place amateur church musical forces (which need all the help they can get) at a disadvantage.  Sacerdotal functions take precedence, and this is expected and normal, but we should try to remember that the more hindrances which are placed on music, the less effective it will be. 

The church is not a concert hall, and vice versa, and the musical and acoustical requirements for the church have little to do with the concert hall.  The audience in a concert hall is not expected to sing, or to stand and respond to a liturgy.  The concert hall audience is passive, receiving sound from stage front.  A church congregation is active, producing sound and music from around the entire "audience".  The Concert hall is a one-way acoustic; the church is a two-way acoustic.  Just as we would not carpet a stage in a concert hall where music is produced, we should avoid upholstering and carpeting a church interior where the congregation "performs". 

The musical forces which support the congregation should be considered as a single entity.  We would not place a soloist 60' away from an orchestra or band, and except for very special effects, we would not place a choir at the opposite end of the concert hall from an orchestra.  Church musicians have a similar need to work together so that their sound is coordinated, on pitch, on tempo and synchronized.  An exception to this is the modern amplified song leader in Catholic churches. 

A church choir has several tasks.  The first is to support the congregation in singing and responses.  The second is to provide its own music.  These are different requirements, but related in that the object is to project the choir sound to the congregation in as musical and direct a fashion as is possible.  A vast and wonderful legacy of church music has been written.  To ignore it, or have it difficult or impossible to perform, is to deprive a congregation of a source of wonderful music
in the church. 

The acoustical and functional requirements for church music are simple and easy to understand, but not always implemented:

1.  The choir, organ, choir director, organist and other instruments are a single musical entity.  They may be separated for special effects, but if they are to participate together they must be placed together. 

2.  The musical forces should be within the room in which they are to be heard.  Separate organ chambers, isolated choir lofts in detached rooms, or other methods by which the instruments or singers are disconnected from the main sanctuary or congregation should be avoided. 

3.  If possible, the musical forces should be on the main axis of the room.  The further away that the forces are located from the center line, the less effective will be the musical result. 

4.  The acoustical requirements for musical presentation are many and complex, but we can simplify the needs into a few generalizations.  A hard flat floor is essential.  Upon this can be placed sturdy, hard, movable riser modules and chairs.  Side walls should be hard, diffusive and nearby in a uniform arrangement.  This will provide the essential "early reflections" so that the musicians can both hear themselves and project their sound to the congregation. 

A hard ceiling above the music area is usually difficult to arrange for optimum acoustical results which reinforce the sound of the musicians and project it evenly around the room.  But, better hard than soft. 

For best musical results, avoid carpet, cushions, openings and detached volumes, thin paneling, soft plaster, acoustical tile, cheap & open risers, drapes and other soft materials.  Avoid long distances to walls at rear, sides and above the performers. 

5.  The musical forces of a church are not separated or detached from the concept of the congregation; they are a part of it.  The musical forces do become a separate entity when their own activity is called upon, but they remain worshipers. 

6.  A music area should be easily expandable and contractible.  Highly formalized arrangements with constraints, railings, pews, permanent risers and other limitations should be avoided.  The future will want to do it differently, and will need more space. 

7.  Church musicians are not "performers" in the concert sense, but they do present the very highest level of music for the listeners of the congregation, and for this to be as effective as we wish, then considerations of musical performance must be taken into account.  To deny church music its best effect is to degrade the worship experience.  At its best, church music performance becomes worship. 

8.  Churches differ widely from each other.  A good solution for one may be inappropriate for another and impractical for a third.  Understanding the fundamentals is essential to creating good solutions for a particular church.  Change is difficult for some churches, but divisiveness can be reduced by careful design and effective communication of all ideas. 

9.  In many churches, non-worship music performances have become both popular and a logical extension of the larger mission of the church.  This has grown remarkably in recent years, and even encompassed churches not historically involved in such use of their sanctuaries.  Not all churches wish to provide this, but for those who do there are a few guidelines:

A.  Flexibility is essential.  All liturgical furniture should be movable, and a very large hard, flat, clear and unobstructed "stage" should be possible at the front-center. 

B.  Church symbolism should remain intact so that even though non-worship events are presented, it is never in the sense that the sanctuary has become a secular auditorium. 

C.  Adequate performance chairs, modular risers, electrical outlets, and platforms are available.  Lighting is flexible.  Amplification is designed for the anticipated. 

D.  The "performance" space is larger than anyone conceived as being necessary in a church.


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