By Jordan Richmond
If you have any semblance of modern, band-driven worship, I guarantee you’ve had complaints about volume. I had a guy who would stick toilet paper in his ears every week and obnoxiously pace the foyer during the music set.
Conventional wisdom tells us that more volume equals more energy. After all people don’t want to hear themselves sing right?
So what’s the perfect volume? In this case, Disney has the answer. Disney seems to have a knack for managing expectations and providing the best user experience on the planet. They can teach us a thing or two about worship. So during my last visit to Disney World I decided to conduct an experiment. Every show I attended I would take out my iPhone and fire up the RTA Lite app. This handy (and free) little tool let’s me measure the decibel level at certain frequencies. I can see the level of the bass, mids, and trebles. The results shocked me.
- Decibel Level – At every show and concert, the average level was about 75 db. That’s pretty soft—about the same as a dial tone with the phone up to your ear. Occasionally it might pop up to 85 db (city traffic), but not much more (hearing damage occurs at 90-95 db with sustained exposure). It was amazing how an explosion or kick drum had incredible intensity when everything else was at a pleasant level.
- Frequencies – The frequency spectrum was linear (as opposed to flat or the typical “smiley face” with enhanced lows and highs, and reduced mids). Bass was the loudest, and it would evenly taper off as it headed toward the higher frequencies. So the sound I heard was ultimately smooth. It had impact when it needed to, and was never shrill or brassy.
- Other Factors – Admittedly the shows I attended were family friendly—inviting young and old. EPCOT did have more concert/dance adult-oriented venues later in the evening. These were significantly louder (too loud for my taste). Also, every Disney venue featured Meyer arrays and trained sound men, so the end product was excellent.
So what did I learn from Disney?
I observed everyone, babies to grandmas, enjoying their experience. They participated. I also realized that sound is something we cannot escape. We cannot turn off our ears. We can look at something else if a light is too bright, but we cannot divert our hearing.
I attended a church service that weekend and felt almost assaulted by the sound (around 90-95 db). Admittedly I’ve subjected my church to that numerous times and wondered why they didn’t participate as actively. By all means pump the volume for youth groups. But for the large corporate service featuring all age groups (or children’s worship), it might be a good idea to bring the volume down.
More volume does not necessarily equal more energy. It insults your listeners, and robs you of the head room you need to emphasize dynamics and impacts when you need to. Turn it down. Smooth it out.
How loud is your church? Would you respond differently if the volume were different?
Jordan Richmond is a worship pastor at Idlewild in Tampa, FL. He has also served other local churches in Florida, Kentucky, and the Cayman Islands.
Posted on April 17, 2013
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom
Personally, I can’t stand it when there is loud music because I can’t hear myself think. I want to actually process the words coming out of my mouth and sing with passion. Loud music makes that very difficult.
It also depends on the room. Many church plants are in gymnasiums which are acoustically a nightmare. If the space is engineered properly for sound, you can generally run things a bit hotter.
I have problems with the notion that folks don’t want to hear themselves sing so we pump up the music in order that they don’t hear themselves. I for one do like hearing my own voice especially when it is blended with the voices of other members of the congregation . The Bible talks about singing with “one voice.” How can a congregation do that when the music drowns out the singing of the congregation and the only singing that can be heard is the amplified voices of the vocalists. Most folks CAN sing although they most likely have been convinced that they cannot. What the contemporary church is failing to do is teach them how to sing, picking worship songs they can sing well, and giving them opportunities to learn and practice these songs. When the Bible talks about singing hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs, it is not referring to the vocalists in the worship band on stage but ordinary Christins–the folks in the congregation. The vocalists in the worship band should be supporting the folks in the congregation in their singing, not singing for them. This requires turning down the volume.
Using your logic we would never see anyone in the audience singing at a live concert.
I couldn’t agree more, Robin. I’ve written a blog post in response to this one that you might find helpful. Check it out at http://youngcalvinist.blogspot.com/2013/04/more-volume-better-worship.html.
Interesting experiment! Usually I wouldn’t suggest using Disney World as a standard for what should happen in our churches on Sunday mornings but this may just be an exception. Now I want to measure the sound levels in our services too.
I’ve been running, installing, managing and tweaking church audio for 20yrs. Corporate worship segments which include the full spectrum of participants usually last from 15-30 minutes depending upon the church. I agree whole heartedly with the Disney approach with regards to frequency response, but 74-80db is too low for corporate worship where the congregation is participating, especially if the worship band and praise team have any live instruments or monitors on stage. Once the room is properly tuned and the harsh frequencies EQ’ed out of the mix, my target is 87-93db, A weighted, slow response…depending upon crowd size. There are a multitude of other factors with regard to room treatments, equipment configuration and capabilities, band preferences, etc. But, this target always seems to make the most people happy.
Nice article, and a great topic of discussion. I also agree with other posts that 75db is a bit too quiet and sounds suspect to me. I would point suggest that phone app RTA’s/decibel meters are not always accurate. I have 3 on my phone and each give quite an array of readings. It is possible that the actual volume level was higher than 75db.
I would also point out that the room is a huge factor in volume and listening experience. Many churches, for example, are either older designs (too acoustically live) or have poor acoustical designs from the beginning. Volume has to be increased to overcome echo/reverberation in the room, and what is left is 85 decibels of noise. I have seen this too many times to count. Many times the answer is correcting acoustical issues, and then 85 decibels can sound full and lively.
As a tech guy and worship minister, I think it’s important to always be evaluating audio levels…but there is so much more going on besides looking @ a #. I hear of pastors who read articles like this and go and tell the sound guy to run it at 75dB. It’s not just about a #. What meter was used to determine 75? A vs C weighting. etc? Live music or prerecorded tracks? Do you want people to feel comfortable to sing or have a conversation over the music withe person sitting next to them? There just isn’t a “right” decibel level you can say set it to and forget it no matter the environment. I have found, more often than not, when people complain about the sound being too loud, it’s usually that the mix was bad 🙂 In my perfect world, if on Sunday morning I could get solid mixes @ 85-90dB I would be super happy…but with volunteers, that’s not always going to happen, and we have a Meyer system 😉
Really great points Steven – I was frankly shocked at the levels I observed at Disney. And at times it felt a bit too soft. I would guess RTA Lite is A weighted. I also agree that a bad mix is often the culprit of a painful musical experience. A great mix can always be pushed more.
Bless you man!
I keep seeing this them on the iphone, but honestly as having electrical engineering background, computer engineering, and audio engineering. Those figures you gave from the iphone are not accurate at all. As well as the skew on the frequency curve. Need to really use a accurate, calibrated RTA, not an iphone or andriod app.. The comment about 75db has cause such a problem at my church because the worship leader got a hold of this and is like insisting it as gospel. 80 to 90, is more where it should be. It all depends on the church! and their personality too! at 75db at mix position, It’s dead, all those bodies just kill the higher frequencies above 1.5k! I won’t get into reasons why, and it’s not the way I tuned the system. It’s taken many years to convince them that their mackie board and peavy speakers were really causing muddy sounds.. yes I compensated..
Line arrays btw, are usually directional, have sweet spots, so those measurements are even more skewed.
I’m sorry I’m a bit annoyed with your article. It’s kind of like preaching something other than the pure word of God. We base our statements or beliefs that do not reside in accuracy or fact. It causes so many problems.
Best advice borrow a calibrated RTA with a Calibrated Mic.
I’m sorry that this has caused division between you and your worship pastor. That was not my intent. You are correct – a professional calibrated dB meter would have given a truly accurate measurement. Given your background, you clearly know more about this than the vast majority – certainly more than me. I’m just a musician who has to wear a “techie” hat.
I was on vacation with my family when I decided to take out my iPhone and see how the RTA app responded to the shows (I didn’t set out to write a blog on it.) Even assuming the app was inaccurate, I could at least take it home and A/B it against the sound I usually mix at on Sunday mornings. I found that I tend to run things louder, and higher on the top end. I felt that provided more energy. So I tried making the mix “look” a bit more like my experience at Disney. I’ve had very few complaints about volume, and a visible increase in worship participation.
Agreed that this was not a fine-tuned scientific study – just a simple experiment on vacation. It was helpful for me and my church.
Accurate or not…..I still lost part of my hearing at a church service. I was told to bring ear plugs or that I could sit in the office until after praise and worship (But I wanted to be a PART of it, hello?)
Great article, lots of good stuff worth thinking about. A couple of quick thoughts:
#1. Most church auditoriums have spots that emphasize certain frequencies over another. At my last church, we put together a ‘map’ showing where certain instruments are louder than others…we used this ‘map’ to help the few folks who complained find a place that was easier on their ears. It worked for us
#2. Remember that many times we determine “loud” with our eyes. As a college student, I played guitar in my church’s worship band. Each week during soundcheck I would get complaints from the sound tech and pastor that I was too loud. Finally, I conducted an experiment in which I didn’t plug in but played very demonstratively. Sure enough, the soundcheck was stopped and I was told to turn down. Holding up my cord, I showed my pastor & sound tech that I wasn’t even plugged in…they were evaluating volume with their eyes not their ears.
I see this now during Senior Adult revivals where our senior adults passionately sing out hymns with the pipe organ cranked to 95db (and no I’m not exaggerating). I see it when I use a full orchestra but get fewer complaints that if I have a guitar driven sound. It’s funny but I’ve found that if I turn the lights up a bit, wear a coat and slacks instead of jeans and a pearl buttoned shirt and I sing songs that are familiar…suddenly the db level has magically dropped in the room.
I am a senior adult and cannot imagine singing to a “pipe organ”. I prefer a piano, guitars, saxaphone, maybe a harmonica and violin. Please don’t put senior adults in a box. We were part of the woodstock generation. We don’t sit in rocking chairs and talk about the good old days like the senior adults used to do. I love loud music, I have two guitars, but I lost hearing in one of my ears after a loud worship session and had to leave a church I loved and people I liked, because of the constant stinging pains in my ear after leaving church. Someday when you are a senior adult, you may look back and say to yourself “Aww, now I see what she was talkin’ about”
Volume is a huge deal. Remember not everyone’s ears are created equal. Some are much more sensitive to sound damage than others and there is no way to know till it’s too late. I know this first hand as I developed a permanent case of tinnitus (ringing of the ears) from the Winter Jam 2010 concert while my sister who was standing right next to me suffered no lingering effects. It was by far the loudest thing i have ever been to, though admittedly i dont go toany concerts. Thankfully my tinnitus is what I would consider a mild case based on the research I’ve done, but it has made me much more cautious and aware of volume levels. There is a mega church near me that I would never step foot in again without ear plugs due to the volume of the music. Everything is louder these days from action movies to concerts and now even worship services. As others have states higher volume does not equal more intense worship or a greater moving of the Holy Spirit. Think about the early church or our brothers and sisters around the world who don’t have huge modern sound systems. I bet their worship is just as intense if not more so than ours. Worship is more about the position of people’s hearts than the position of the volume slider on our mixing boards.
It has always been my outlook that the system I operate is to enhance the worship time and not distract from it. I don’t want worshipers to “hear” the system, but those leading. If they are thinking about the sound system, then they are not focused on worshiping the Creator of the Universe. No good purpose is served by audible assault of worshipers. To date, I have not had anyone tell me that they were distracted from worship because it wasn’t as loud as they would like it (but a few that just wanted it louder), but I have gotten complaints about things being too loud.
Nice Article Jordan!! I completely agree. I like to worship and I like my music and I don’t mind it being a little loud as you said the Disney music was. Not too loud but not too quiet either. I can say (and I am not an older person either) that the real loud stuff actually hurts. Not just my ears either. I went to a concert (Christian) recently at a Christian college and the music was so loud that trying to talk was impossible. I also felt the vibrations in my whole upper body and chest area. It physically hurt and it was hard to breath. I almost walked out just because I was scared my heart would stop or I would not be able to breath anymore. I am not even exaggerating. The vibrations were that intense. I felt nauseated and sick. I didn’t leave I endured it because I didn’t want to lose my seat but I could not wait for it to be over and my 3 year old who was there with me was also glad when it was over. My three year old likes to worship and loves to sing loud and to songs like Ten Thousand Reasons by Matt Redman. He loves the Joy FM and the songs on there but when it gets as loud as the concert we went to and the vibrations are that intense, it is too much. We did not enjoy the songs at all. In fact they sang Ten Thousand Reasons at this concert and my three- year old who always joins in to sing that song , did not join in and was mad because the concert was doing one more song instead of ending. That is the first time I saw my toddler not want to participate in that song. It was the intensity and the loudness of it that made him not want anything to do with it that day. If it was a good 75-80 Dcb then we would have enjoyed and participated in the worship. But, instead, we felt sick after and prayed for it to be over throughout the entire concert. If it were not raining that day (and cold and we forgot to pack sweat shirts and coats) we would have gone for a walk during the concert instead of staying for it. We even had teens from our YG tell us that they didn’t like the music at the concert. You would think teens would love it.
Volume does matter, and it matters a great deal. My grandson (and that gives you a lot more info about me) has told me of times he comes away from a youth concert with his ears ringing. There is an ethical issue here. We say we are using the volume to engage people in music that will bring them in touch with God, but too many times volume becomes a substitute for musical quality….we actually think we are better performers if we are loud. How superficial is that? We are damaging ears and riding the gain to make the world look at us, when the world needs to see Jesus. Maybe a few lawsuits regarding hearing loss will bring the church back into some balance here. Don’t laugh….the litigation is about to become a reality. It’s a pity that suits are required to awaken our ethical awareness, when our Christianity should have taken care of that a long time ago.
Yes, exactly. Those clamoring for more-louder-hotter seem to forget that love does no harm to a neighbor.
What this says is that someone is looking for an excuse to sue the church anyway! Im the drummer in my church and we average about 82 to 85 db and peak at 92 to 93 db and we get complaints from the 45 to 50 crowd that they cant hear.. Wake up people and stop whining! I can put my phone on speaker ph and hit 74 db,, Cmon guys! Get a life!
Thank you, Jordon, for your article. As for those who complain against it, those of you care only about worshipping with loud music and not about the people – Shame on you. You spout being a Christian and yet your words are empty. How dare you care not for everyone who comes to worship. Preferring one type of music over another cannot be equated with volume and intensity. It is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of some self-righteous, self-indulgent hypocrites in the church caring not for all of the people. Individuals with pace-makers can be affected by high levels of intensity in music, as well as those with sensitive hearing (such as babies and the elderly). It is such a shame to hear those who call themselves Christians talking so self-centeredly and exclusively without any care at all for their fellow believers. Christ, if He were here in person, would call you vipers and hypocrites when you talk as you do. Worship is not about how loud can the music can go, but about the people lifting up unified voices to the Lord. True worship cares about everyone, because it is a reflection of the one true God. That said, if you ever hear yourself saying to someone, who just wants the volume turned down so they can comfortably enjoy church, “You can find another church” – your true colors are exposed. Those colors do not reflect the love and goodness of Jesus. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, good or bad, so is a church known by its fruit. That fruit should be about unity, lovingkindness, mercy, temperance, patience, gentleness, truth…. If there is even an ounce of “I don’t care about your health and comfort”, then you need to change that fruit. Turning the music down several decibels will not harm anyone, but turning it up most definitely does – physically and by alienation. How can we ever as the body of Christ expect the world to take serious the light of the Gospel when an attitude of callousness and “I’m all about me” permeates the church. Again, shame on all of you who take that approach. True worship is inclusive. True worship is about love. The Lord said in John 13:34 – “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye have love one to another.” It is not an expression of Christ’s love to care not about your fellow Christians. The Lord said in John 15:13 – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” No one is asking you to even lay down your life, just turn down the music (a very small request). The Lord said in John 15:17,18 – “These things I command you, that ye love one another. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.” It is sad and a shame when there are many in the world who love better than those in the church. I speak this especially to the pastors – you are required by the Lord to love all His sheep. He cares not about quantity but about quality. Don’t neglect those who truly want to worship him just to gain a following by those who will only attend for the loud music, those who have the gaul to tell others who cannot physically handle the loudness and intensity of the music, to go somewhere else. How can you call yourself a true shepherd of the Lord when you let some of your sheep be bullies and others be neglected? You are responsible for the division. If you do not agree, then I urge you to show proof of your stance from the very word of God. Luke 18:17 – “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” My four-year old son shows more compassion for others than I see in the church, especially among those who wish to worship according to high decibels and not according to spirit and truth. Loud music is not a salvation issue, but the lack of love and concern for fellow believers is. Are you ready to stand before the Lord and argue your stance on your preferred worship over love for all in the church. Romans 13:10 – Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Hypocrisy is to preach love from the pulpit and then not exercise it among the sheep of your fold. If someone cannot enjoy worship for the loud music, if one cannot comfortably take part in worship because of the discomfort to their ears (and damage to hearing), if one cannot feel a part of the worship because the music is overpowering, then it is out of love for those believers that the music should be turned down. The brethren are much more important than the performance on stage, the booming base, the high decibels. Those who crave loud, can go to a rock concert of their own free will, but the Lord said that we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves.
What if we start having our congregation leave because of the low volume? Have we loved all our parish then? The problem you paint is a false dichotomy – that to love all is to have a reasonable volume, but that isn’t true. It’s simply quieter. Depending on the church, you will gain and lose different followers because of this. At a church like ours, if you turn it below 95db, our congregation would be OFFENDED. Why? Because they simply like it loud. And I love that about them 🙂 What is our solution for those that should find it too loud (We actually peak out at 115db in a theater, which is functionally rock concert level)? We have free earplugs, which drop the db range for the wearers to talking volume (back down around 75db). But barring that, no, we won’t turn the volume down. Because that is what is effective for OUR church/congregation. It’s what allows them to feel free enough to sing, or shout, or cry, or whatever it is they may do while worshiping the Lord. It works, and it works well, but it isn’t for everyone. The notion that each church should appeal to all is not a worthy endeavor, because it is impossible. As a worship leader I know this very well. Worship is a big part of our experience at our church. And I would never, ever imply that it was for everyone. But it IS for people that are looking for a different experience; for people that feel that traditional churches are perhaps ineffective for them. And that’s beautiful, because instead of giving up, they find a home. Maybe something a bit more modern, and louder, but a house of God nonetheless. And THAT is what matters. It isn’t about showing people the door. It’s about the believer knowing what they need to be happy in whatever their home may be. No one kicks someone out, but no one should request a church to render themselves ineffective. The notion that quiet or “reasonable volumes” is somehow the right way is false. It is NOT universally appealing, and my church is a standing validation of exactly that. It is simply quieter. It will appeal to a specific group of people that will like their worship at that level. That doesn’t make it right NOR does it make it wrong. It makes it subjective. And that’s exactly why I would be able to flip this around and choose a stance where you have requested that I alienate most of my congregation by pushing the faders down instead of up. How dare we send so many of our flock running out the doors because they felt they couldn’t worship in a quiet theater? But that stance is wrong too. And it’s wrong because there is no right way. There’s your church, and the way your church likes things. If you have attempted to appeal to all people, then you are either the best church in the world, or you have watered down the experience to the point of inefficacy. The nature of humanity is such that you reach out to as many as you can, in the way that you can. Each church has its strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure we can all appreciate that. We’ve been graced in this area with a multitude of churches to choose from. From cowboy churches, to catholic, to modern loud churches like ours, there IS a place for you. But there is NO right way. The only right way is that the church love God the best way it can. From there, the believer chooses their experience. All I can really say is that if I were to follow your advice, and many people on this forum, we would NOT have a happy congregation. We probably wouldn’t have a congregation at all. That tells me we’re doing something RIGHT for these people. Something needed. Something that isn’t found everywhere. Some people have come and not liked it. But as long as they went to where their hearts were happy, then that’s okay! There won’t ever be, and there has never been, a one size fits all church. My request is that you don’t attempt to harshly judge your brothers and sisters in the assumption that they hate their neighbor because they like it loud. Speaking of Jesus coming back, would he appreciate the venom in those words? I seriously, seriously doubt it. It’s okay to be digruntled – to feel disenfranched, maybe a little angry. It’s not okay to cast judgment. Let the traditional churches and non-traditional churches exist peacefully. There’s no war to be had here. Besides, you should maybe stop by sometime – with earplugs, you might even like it! They’re free 😀
Dee, Thank you for your perspective. Nowadays some churches just want more people but do not care about the quality of the worship or the physical health of the congregation. What a pity! I spoke up and the Director of WAC doesn’t like me and maybe the senior Pastor of this 5,000 some people mega church I am attending doesn’t like me either. But so be it!
Excellent post – I am presently experiencing this problem, my ears have begun to hurt, I have pain, headaches, head feels like someone is bashing it in. Now I have to stay away from the services, can’t go all day and all night because my brain, ears, head need to recover from the loud noise. God is NOT pleased with this mentality in the church at all. Musicians should never play soo loud, that you cannot hear the voices of the people. In worship, the voices of the people take priority over instruments. Microphones should never be so loud where it is painful to the hearer. The Local church has adopted the worldly ways of the world where the atmosphere is a disco, nightclub, rock concert. Its horrible! I now wear ear plugs to protect my ears, I should wear it all the time now, but try to only when sound gets too much to bear or I have pain. I really need to wear it at all times though, because the local church is the ONLY place I experience painful hearing. Church’s attitude is not one of love, leaders should be concerned about the people attending churches, love is the 1st commandment not loud music. If the sound is affecting people in the congregation, then leaders should be sensitive to this. We should have wisdom, it is not the wisdom of God to have speakers, sound blasting loud enough to damage the ears of people. Are we trying to brain wash God’s people? What really is going on in these congregations? Lawsuits should be in order, because this is ridiculous!!! God IS NOT pleased!!! Because we are so out of control, OSHA probably needs to come into these churches to establish ground rules for noise because we are not self-controlled nor disciplined to be able to handle this issue ourselves! Are we as a people really hearing the voice of God, because the church would hear God say If the sound system is damging the ears of people, we need to tone it down and use wisdom and acceptable decibels for the people! We claim to be hearing God but alot of activity is just flesh, not the Spirit of God at all!!! Saints will judge the world, what happens when we cannot even make sound judgment in simple things as the level of sound in our services, and we want church and government to be separate. We should probably have government laws that control level of sound in churches because we cannot handle sound judgment in this area for ourselves.