Saturday, April 6, 2013

When Is Worship Too Loud?

Often the complaint of “too loud” worship gets leveled at contemporary worship bands.  While organs can certainly be “too loud” as well, the nature of electronic amplification tends to make worship bands a more fitting target.  It’s tough to tell, however, if “too loud” means simply “annoying” or “I can’t hear myself sing” or “I can’t hear myself think” or “my ears hurt!”

A brief review of online discussions of this turns up things like John Stackhouse, Jr.’s “Memo to Worship Bands” in Christianity Today, as well as spin-off discussions from it and more in-depth musings on larger issues of rock concert volume levels in general.  What seems clear to me from the variety of material out there is that there is definitely something worth discussing here, and that, despite the dismissive attitudes of some posters in the forums, when people say “too loud,” they’re probably not being passive-aggressive—they really do mean too loud.

So what is “too loud?”  Some of the comments on the forums above talk about “too loud” as purely subjective and related to one’s personal musical taste—I don’t like that music, so I’m inclined to say it’s “too loud.”  Others, like those on the Edward Tufte forum, come from educated musicians and sound engineers who generally agree that “too loud” is an “occupational hazard” for both today’s concert goer and musician, citing a menagerie of factors like bad audio mixing, an industry attitude of “louder is better,” and the vicious cycle of musicians’ hearing loss and subsequent demands for more sound leading to more hearing loss.

Calling “too loud” a purely subjective comment is probably a bit too dismissive, which raises issues of pastoral care on the part of the church musician.  We as worship leaders need to probe for more information and thoughts from our worshipers when this issue comes up.  When people don’t eat spicy food on account of it being “too spicy,” it seems to me that they don’t just mean, “I don’t like it.”  They really do mean, “it’s too spicy,” even if that ultimately means “it’s too spicy for me.” Regardless, they’re indicating that a threshold has been reached—they can tolerate no more, and we need to understand their perspective.

Aside from personal comments from worshipers, where do we turn as worship leaders and musicians in this curious discussion?  We turn to people who measure this stuff, like OSHA and NIOSH.  Both groups are government sanctioned agencies that assign noise dosage levels for hearing safety; OSHA, which operates under the Department of Labor, has more lenient standards. NIOSH, which operates under the Centers for Disease Control, is more conservative.  For my purposes here, I’ll cite NIOSH’s standards out of a “better to be safe than sorry” mentality and since they actually study the science, which is not OSHA’s job.

NIOSH’s exposure time recommendations start with a limit of 85 decibels (dB) for 8 hours a day with a 3 dB tradeoff of time-intensity: for every 3 dB increase in sound intensity, the exposure limit drops by half, which translates into:

dBA 85 88 91 94 97 100 103 106
Time 8 hrs 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr 30 min 15 min 7.5 min 3.5 min

To put it another way, each decibel level and time of exposure carries the same risk of hearing loss: 8 hours at 85 dB is the same risk as 4 hours at 88 dB and 3.5 minutes at 106 dB.  It’s also important to note that these values are based on occupational exposure—they assume that time outside of the normal 8-hour, 5-day workweek is quiet.

Now to my point—what this means for worship.  Most worship services last 1 hour.  If half of the service is filled with music played by a worship band at 97 dB, the exposure carries the same risk of hearing loss as operating a belt sander for an hour (approx. 94 db).  Granted, this is one worship service a week and not a daily work hazard, but the hazard exists nonetheless. 

Depending on the instruments in the band and the band’s own propensity for higher volumes, 97 dB may be unrealistically low—rock concerts can approach 115 dB, which leads into my next point.  If the volume of worship music approaches the two highest levels in the table above—well within the possibility for a rock band—the exposure limit easily encompasses that of a single worship song: 4-8 minutes.  With that in mind, we’re not talking about some arbitrary and subjective measure of “too-loud”-ness, or even personal taste.  Hearing loss should not be an occupational hazard of our worshipers; it should not be a worship-related illness. 

“Loudness” is a genuine concern.  Part of our responsibility as worship leaders is to be good stewards of the health and well-being of those we serve.  This is especially true since young adults and young families (who are often the demographic that “contemporary” services attempt to cater to) are already victims of this illness: as of 2010, 1 in 5 adolescents already has hearing loss.

But even beyond the related health concerns, there are musical and liturgical concerns as well.  Worship music that is “too loud” is not servant-leadership.  This is one thing that most organists know instinctively, simply by virtue of the instrument’s long history with worship.  Organists need to hear the congregation in order to accompany them well—if the organist can’t hear the congregation, the organ is probably too loud.  If the congregation can’t hear itself, the organ is probably too loud.  But guitarists and drummers and vocalists are generally trained from a performance perspective; they tend to think in terms of leading by force, not by invitation.  The congregation is sometimes simply dragged along for the ride and left worse for wear at the end.  There are, of course, organists who are guilty of this same sin, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule in my experience.  On the other hand, worship bands that lead well tend to be the exception rather than the rule; being sensitive to the congregation’s primary role in worship and the implications of that for things like tempo, key, melodic range, volume, etc. are just not things that have yet made it into the worship band’s vocabulary—in the grand scheme of church history, the “worship band” is still in its infancy.

I hope this post helps to clarify and redirect some of the conversation out there regarding volume.  I’d love to get your feedback as well: Have you encountered worship bands who are sensitive to appropriate volume levels?  Have you encountered organists who were not?  How have you dealt this issue in your own experience?

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