Architecture and Acoustics in a Worship Space Soundscape

A soundscape refers to the human perception of the acoustic sound sources, cultural (human-made) and natural (from nature)—the experience of listening to the complete collection of sounds in a particular location. Acoustic (or aural) architecture is the design and construction of a space to manipulate the characteristics and quality of sound to influence occupants’ perceptions and experiences.

Worship spaces are prime examples of the human experience relying on the acoustic environment, as the aural architecture must support a congregation’s spiritual needs and enhance faith.

The Human Perception of Sound

People’s interaction with sound is the “sonic experience of space,” which:

  • Affects their spatial orientation.
  • Alters their mood.
  • Enhances and degrades the experience.
  • Influences their aesthetic perception.

A 2022 case study (Algargoosh et al.) published in Building Acoustics evaluated the impact worship spaces’ acoustic environments have on human emotions and experiences. The results demonstrated that a space’s acoustic environment and audiovisual quality magnifies the emotional impact of sound. Thus, intelligent architectural design is vital for producing a successful worship experience.

The Connection Between Sound and Worship Spaces

We can trace the relationship between music/sound and architecture to the intermingling of music and worship spaces. It was not until much later (the 18th century) that the “music hall,” a dedicated indoor venue for listening to music, became a fixture in the West (specifically England). This time gap implies that for much of music history, compositions primarily accommodated outdoor performances or those in structures not specifically designed for music listening.

The extensive timeline of music evolution creates an impressive repertoire of sacred pieces, of which the majority’s compositions do not account for the acoustics of modern-day worship spaces. When an architect is designing the acoustics of a worship space, they must be knowledgeable of the history and variety of the world’s liturgical music works.

4 Worship Space Characteristics that Influence Acoustics

  1. Participation

Unlike spaces like concert halls where the audience sits and listens, congregations commonly participate in worship. How they hear themselves and others is central to their worship experience.

  1. Musicians’ Areas

Concert hall performances typically occur on the platform (stage) at the front of the space because the purpose is to host a singular performance (e.g., chamber music, full orchestras, etc.). Much of the aural activity during a worship space service centers around that front platform. However, worship venues often include musicians’ areas not integrated with that central front platform.

  1. Music and Spoken Word Sound Quality

Acoustic design for concert halls mainly focuses on enhancing the quality of music, but worship spaces must optimize speech clarity in tandem with music and vocal quality.

  1. Varying Music Styles

Some congregations implement rock bands, while others have large Sunday service orchestras. Choirs and pipe organs are also popular mediums for sound in various faiths and denominations. What complicates acoustical design in some worship spaces is a single space that holds both “traditional” and “contemporary” services.

Acoustic Architecture Design Priorities

When an acoustic architect is designing for a client, one of the first steps is to identify if the anticipated activities of the worship space require the same acoustic elements. The client may provide a list prioritizing the space’s activities, telling the architect the main activity to base the space’s design on.

That list also helps determine whether adjustable acoustics finishes (sound-manipulating material) or a supplementary electronic sound system are necessary to properly adjust the acoustic environment for optimal sound quality throughout the range of the space’s activities.

Enhancing Worship Soundscapes

Premium speech clarity and the ideal music and vocal quality in an indoor environment entail applying surface finish treatments (e.g., acoustic panels) for sound absorption and reflection to a structure’s ceiling, floor, and wall architectural framing.

Absorption manages a room’s noise level by reducing reverb (reverberation) and undesirable sound reflections.

Reflection enhances the indoor listening experience by redirecting and scattering sound.

Sound Absorption

Proper sound absorption improves direct sound quality and reduces echoes, reflecting noises, and reverberation. Common materials for reverberation control include:

  • Absorptive Baffles – hang vertically from the ceiling
  • Absorptive Panels – adhere flatly to a wall or ceiling
  • Acoustic Ceiling Clouds – hang parallel to the ceiling
  • Carpet
  • People
  • Upholstery

Of the above materials, baffles and panels are the most efficient broadband absorbers, effectively absorbing a range of high to low frequencies, but are especially adept at low-frequency sound absorption.

People tend to absorb high frequencies, meaning an architect must factor in the average number of occupants for activities in a worship space.

Sound Reflection

Early reflected sound bounces off a room’s ceiling, floor, or walls before reaching the listeners’ ears. Early-reflected, high-frequency sound brightens music and vocal quality and heightens speech intelligibility.

Common materials (e.g., chair upholstery, clothing, etc.) easily absorb higher-frequency sound. To control high-frequency sound absorption and prevent unwanted echoes, architectural designs often aim to create a room with a scattering of high-frequency sound to produce a clear and brilliant soundscape.

There are two types of sound reflection:

  • Diffusion – creates uniform sound levels incoming from and outgoing in all directions; the listener feels like they are “enveloped” in sound.

 

  • Specular – mirror-like reflection; sound waves that are incoming from a single direction reflect off a surface into a single outgoing direction.

Specular reflection occurs with reflective surfaces (i.e., a room’s boundaries). However, a diffuser radiates sound waves in many directions, creating a space with a more expansive scattering of high-frequency sound.

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