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Music and Church Design  
J. Michael McMahon  

In 1982, I became music director at a parish where the pastor, liturgy committee, choir members, and parishioners alike bemoaned the poor congregational singing. When I played the organ in the front of the church, I could see the congregation only through a mirror. One Sunday I was feeling annoyed that people were not singing, but when I glanced in the mirror, what I saw did not match what I heard. I saw people with books in their hands and mouths moving, yet I heard only the faintest hint of the assembly's singing. I soon came to realize that the primary problem with the congregational singing in that parish was not the people, the hymnal, or the style of music - it was the building. An acoustical consultant suggested that we cover most of the ceiling with painted drywall. The change was immediate. The sound of robust singing now accompanied the view in my mirror!

Music is essential for good liturgical celebration; thus, pastoral musicians may contribute an important perspective on issues of church building and design. I would like to offer two "great commandments" and ten principles to aid in creating a church where music is accorded its proper role. The first great commandment is this: You shall build a church that resonates with the full, conscious, and active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful, where ministers and the assembly alike can be heard as they join in one great act of worship. The second commandment is like the first: You shall arrange the building so that all the participants - assembly, ministers, choir, and instrumentalists - may take an active role and engage one another in a sung liturgical action. Both of these "commandments" are based on an understanding of the liturgy as an inherently musical event - it is meant to be sung. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy recognized the musical nature of the liturgy when it described music as forming a "necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy" (Sacrosanctum concilium, #112).

I would like to propose ten principles to help pastors, building committees, architects, and designers be attentive to the "necessary" role of music in the liturgy.

1. A church building should support the sound of congregational and choral song. Sounds self-evident, right? Yet this kind of support is possible only in a room with a measure of resonance - a bit of echo - that allows sound to envelop the assembly, somewhat like the acoustical environment of the shower, everyone's favorite singing place. This kind of resonant acoustical environment is also essential for the choir. Natural resonance in a church allows the choir and the rest of the assembly to sing together without the choir overpowering or dominating (Built of Living Stones [BLS], #222, 225).

2. A church building should support the sound of the priest, deacon, choir, psalmist, cantor, and other ministers with a minimum and highly judicious use of sound reinforcement. Almost every building will require at least some kind of electronic sound enhancement for the individual voices of the priest and other ministers (BLS, #224). Sound systems should be designed to strike a balance between the need for people to hear individual voices clearly and the unimpeded communication that supports the dialogic character of many responses throughout the liturgy.

3. A church building should support the sound of instruments with a minimal use of sound reinforcement. The sound of instruments must first be considered in relation to the sound of the singing they support. Can they lead and complement the singing without dominating it? How well do they sound by themselves or in combination with one another? A pleasantly resonant acoustical environment will allow for many instruments without the use of amplification and naturally support the relation to non-amplified singing.

4. Sound systems should be considered secondary to the natural acoustical properties of the church building itself. Electronic sound enhancement should do just that - enhance and support. The choice of materials and the relationship of the various surfaces of the room offer the primary ways to create a good acoustical environment. The assembly is not an audience but an active participant in the liturgy. Audio enhancement should be used as sparingly as possible to preserve the natural human interactions of the liturgy.

5. The choir should be located so that the members can take their places "among the faithful" yet perform their ministry effectively (BLS, #89 - 90). The choir sometimes sings alone, but more often sings as part of the assembly or alternately with them. The choir should minister where its members can participate fully in the liturgy, and where it can hear and be heard, see and be seen by everyone. Their placement also should consider how sound will be projected into the room. Choir lofts can cut the choir off from the rest of the assembly, make participation in the liturgy more difficult, and break the dynamic relationship between the choir and the rest of the assembly. While many choir lofts provide the best acoustical vantage point for choral singing, rear galleries seem out of keeping with the spirit of the liturgy and its supporting documents.

6. The organ and other instruments should be located in relation to the assembly, the action of the liturgy and the acoustical demands of the space (BLS, #226 - 227). The primary role of the organ and other instruments is to lead the singing of the assembly and to accompany the singing of the choir. Therefore, they need to be located in a place where sound can be directed freely toward the entire assembly and where the origin of the sound will be near the choir, psalmist, and cantor. The placement should allow the organist and other instrumentalists to participate as fully as possible in the action of the liturgy.

7. Even if a pipe organ cannot be purchased at the time of construction, be sure to include space to accommodate pipes and equipment. A competent organ builder can help designers and architects to allow for adequate space for the future addition of a pipe organ.

8. The design of the church should include a place from where the cantor can lead the singing of the assembly. The most recent edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal specifically calls for a cantor or choir director to lead assembly song (#104). This role requires unobstructed visual contact. The cantor often also serves as psalmist, so the cantor's location should also provide easy access to the ambo for the proclamation of the responsorial psalm (BLS, #89).

9. Acoustics and placement of musicians should be taken into consideration from the beginning of the design process. I recently attended the dedication of a visually appealing church that provides atmosphere for hospitality, fosters a sense of prayer, and is supportive of the liturgical action. Unfortunately, the lively acoustics - and the lively singing - of the old church are gone. No place was provided for a choir and no space was set aside for a future pipe organ. The choir needs to be amplified in the new church, and the natural acoustic is so poor that a sound technician must be present at every liturgy to monitor the system. All of these problems could have been avoided if the acoustics and placement of musicians had been an integral part of the design process from the outset.

10. Decisions on acoustics and placement should be based on participation in the liturgy - not on one dimension alone, but on all pertinent factors. Musicians and non-musicians need to work together throughout the planning process to ensure that all factors are considered in addressing the musical and acoustical dimensions of church design. The issues can be complex, yet the goal is simple - a church building that supports and fosters the active participation of the entire assembly of God's people in singing the liturgy.

Singing and music are integral to the liturgy and constitute an essential component of the church building and its design. Church buildings should enable the music to achieve its two primary purposes - the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful (Sacrosanctum concilium, #112). It should provide the resonance through which the voices of all can be lifted in praise and prayer to fill the hearts of everyone present with the joy of God's presence and the transforming power of God's Spirit.

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609

J. Michael McMahon
is President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM). The music editor for Celebration speaks and writes on all areas of liturgy and music.
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