Music vs Worship

Throughout the country, more contemporary music is being added to traditional worship services. This music includes a variety of instruments, including electronic/amplified and high-powered vocals sometimes called “praise-power-teams”, all designed to excite, inspire and to captivate an audience. This music is, primarily, directed towards young people to simulate the kinds of music they hear in the secular world. Older congregants, traditionally, resist changes in the services, but recognize that something must be done to attract and sustain a new rejuvenated membership.

The initial problem is that the traditional services are based upon a traditional sanctuary. The acoustics of these spaces accommodated the pulpit, the choir, an organ and a piano. Not much in the way of conflicts, from a sound perspective. The pulpit platform is relatively close to the audience pews. A lot of the sound is acoustic, with the sound system concentrating on voice amplification.

More theatrical-type presentations require more space and a new approach to sanctuary design. This space helps to define the various presentations, the spoken word, including “power-preaching”, exuberant prayers/testimonies, large mass choirs, a variety of modern instruments, intense solo vocals, audio/video presentations, dance ministries, etc.

Modern musicians need to hear themselves and each other, normally, through a number of monitor speakers. Coupled with the amplifier/speakers of the instruments, themselves, the monitor speakers add to the overall sound that is heard, not only by the musicians but, woefully, by the congregation. Each musician hears the music mix with reference to himself. This condition compounds itself as each musician brings himself higher in the mix resulting in the other musicians doing the same thing. The result is louder and louder instrumentals, with the need to increase the volumes of the soloists and the choir.

The sound system is now over-taxed trying to raise the level of the choir and the soloist to “over-come” the instruments. The musicians often suggest to increase the power (output) of the main sound system, but this would result in projecting a sound output that might be, legally, harmful to the audience, not to mention uncomfortable and annoying. The result may be liability, for the church, and/or the loss of some older member, who generally are the primary supporters of the church.

Obviously, something must be done. Most expect that there is some electronic solution to all of this. Certainly, electronics contributes to the problem and can be called upon to help reduce the problem, but, additionally, the participants are the major components causing the problem. Compromise, in my opinion, is the answer.

I am convinced that instrument amplifiers and monitor speakers need to be reduced or eliminated. Then, how do the musicians hear themselves and each other? “In-ear” monitors may represent a technique that may help to reduce/eliminate unwanted noise. Miking each instrument (also with direct boxes) allows the sound mixer full control over the music mix and the permits a workable mix to the musician’s ears. The anarchy of control must be eliminated and returned to the sound mixer.

The pulpit space may need re-thinking. Expanding the presentation environment would allow some natural acoustic isolation. Also, consideration should be given to the acoustic properties of the pulpit area, as well as the sanctuary, as a whole.

The placement of organ speakers can also be critical to the problem of loud music. Often these (multiple) Leslie speakers, which are self-amplified and potentially very loud, can be in locations that reduce the sound coming back to the organist. This makes the organist play louder which causes the other instrumentalist to play louder and may overwhelm the main sound system. Another consideration is “live” drums. Acoustic drums are sonically intense. Every open microphone in the system picks up a significant portion of the drums. Some churches have adopted the use of electronic drums to eliminate the uncontrollable sound of drums. Electronic drums, perhaps a radical departure for some musicians, should be considered as a possible contribution to a solution for uncontrollable music.

The sound mixer should have complete control of all the sounds of the services so that they can provide an even, appropriate volume level for all congregants and participants. Some operators are sometimes too eager to please and are sometimes encouraged to make volume increases, either individual mikes and/or the overall level. The result is usually feedback. Feedback is an ultimate presence in all “live” sound systems. Increasing the number and power of speakers and their corresponding high power amplifiers may still find that the sound may be limited because of acoustic feedback. Most live mixes are at the threshold of feedback which is why minor changes in microphone level or position can set the system off. Even some instruments, like the omnipresent organ, can produce a note/chord that can excite the feedback points, in the system.

Another approach is to split the sound system into two systems, particularly, into two speaker systems. Present mixers usually have the capacity to make this separation. The music would be directed, in stereo, to a left/right speaker configuration (on each side of sanctuary) and the speech components of the service (sermons, announcements, etc.) would be directed to an efficient central speaker cluster. This approach keeps the feedback condition under better control because it reduces the number of “problem” mikes in a general mix. Any increase in the technical equipment/facilities requires securing more trained personnel to operate/maintain it. As the complexities increase, the operation becomes significantly more difficult.


LET THE DIALOGUE BEGIN – between musicians, singers, worship leaders, sound operators and representatives of the congregation so that the worship services may progress to the point that the church wants to reach. Conflicts between the liturgy and the musical presentations need to be remedied. All must recognize the ultimate goals of the services.


  1. Consider acoustic/space changes.
  2. Musicians must not play so loud.
  3. Musicians should try “in-ear” monitors
  4. Eliminate/reduce monitor speakers
  5. Try electronic drums.
  6. Mixers should adjust all music sources in proper relationship (choir, vocal solos, instruments, etc.)
  7. Consider separating speech and music into two systems.
  8. Sound levels should not exceed safe (OSHA) levels.