Can’t Hear Them Singing? Dial It Back A Notch!

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decibelMost of us can’t imagine operating a lawn mower or power tools without hearing protection. Yet we regularly operate our worship sound reinforcement systems at a comparable decibel level.

We all know volume complaints are more prevalent when the musical style is one the complainant doesn’t particularly like. But before you write this post off as another stylistic rant from an old guy, remember that decibel levels are no respecter of ages or musical styles.

An organ, choir and orchestra, rhythm section or southern gospel quartet all have the same potential to hover around elevated or even damaging volume levels. In fact, some studies have shown that incidents of hearing loss are slightly higher in classical musicians than rock musicians. So even if our volume preferences may be subjective, the potential effects are not.

Worship leaders often use the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) decibel scale to determine acceptable levels. Although a helpful resource, it is often used reactively rather than proactively. In other words, leaders use this scale to defend existing levels in response to complaints.

Proactive use of the OSHA scale can instead help a congregation consider not only acceptable levels but also appropriate levels. Acceptable levels are subjective…Appropriate levels are objective.

Experts have written that based on the length of time of exposure vs. the intensity of exposure, every 3 dB drop reduces the risk by one-half. In the noisy environment of a worship service with numerous instrumentalists and vocalists playing and singing simultaneously, a 3 dB drop of the band or orchestra would be imperceptible to most people.[1] So slight volume adjustments could foster significant progress toward more appropriate worship music levels.

Most worship leaders lament the fact that their congregations are no longer singing. Elevated volume levels could be contributing to this passivity. So being sensitive to the need for minor sound adjustments could encourage expanded participation in congregational singing. Kenny Lamm wrote, “If our music is too loud for people to hear each other singing, it is too loud.” Check out the following link for his helpful commentary on why congregations are no longer singing: 9 Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship by Kenny Lamm.

As leaders, we can rationalize higher decibel levels because it feels better, because it fits a certain genre or because we personally prefer it at those levels. And yet, we often vilify congregants who make those same claims about their own preferences. So it’s really just a matter of our responsibility and accountability as leaders to fulfill our obligation to steward the platform musicians and congregants we have been entrusted to lead.

[1] Marshall Chasin, Hearing Loss in Musicians: Prevention and Management, (San Diego: Plural Publishing, 2009).

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2 Responses to “Can’t Hear Them Singing? Dial It Back A Notch!”

  • John Plant Says:

    I like the Chris Tomlinson comment, one I’ve used on numerous occasions. Never seen it happen yet but I live in hope. We certainly don’t have it loud, in fact at times I struggle to hear what I’m playing, sometimes can hear the click of the keys more than the sound despite an iem. We are using a modular building and the acoustics are not good as the ceiling is far too low but I do wish it could be a bit louder. Set up for another church in a 12th century stone building with a different sound engineer as well, so much better, lot bigger congregation (a Christmas special). Would love to try the same engineer in our place.
    However, have also been a part of the congregation in places where the sound level is so high that I can’t here myself, let alone people next to me. Doesn’t do my voice or ears any good.

  • Quentin Sawatzky Says:

    Chris Tomlin wrote this on his Facebook page over the weekend, “My goal while leading worship is to create an atmosphere where I can back away and allow people to worship God unhindered.” Oh, how I wish more church worship leaders could learn yours and Chris’ lesson!

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