Choral Music and Room Acoustics

by vernsanders on June 25, 2010

One of the things I talk about in my Ebook The Choir in Modern Worship, is how a director needs to keep the acoustics of the worship space in mind when a choir leads in worship. Here’s an excerpt from the book that gives you an idea of how I approach any space in which my choir will be singing:

The first thing I do when I walk into a new room is walk around while snapping my finger. I listen to whether the sound echoes at all, bounces back, or dies. I listen for hot spots (almost every room has at least one), and dead spots (every room has those too). I try to determine whether the sound comes back to me with high or low band frequencies emphasized or  whether there are noticeable acoustical holes in the frequency range. In a minute or less I can make some fairly accurate judgments about a room, based upon a backlog of experience from being in many, many rooms during my career.
While I am walking and snapping, I am also looking at the space, and how it is configured. If the platform is covered with band equipment and microphones, I can make an educated guess at how the audio equipment is configured, and by looking at the equipment in place, I can tell what quality it is. There is no advance predictor of the capabilities of the audio tech, however.
Based upon my observations, I place the room on a wet–dry continuum, and assess whether or not there will be accompaniment issues presented by the room. Depending upon what I learn, I apply the following rules in an educated manner:

  • The wetter the acoustic, the slower the tempos
  • The drier the acoustic the more attention that must be spent on enunciation, and finishing notes and phrases, since the room will absorb the sound quickly
  • The bigger the room from front to back, the more the projection focal point must change in order to include all the listeners in the music
  • The bigger the room from side to side the more attention must be spent to positioning the singers to “fill the room”
  • The bigger the crowd the more the bodies will make the room drier

Along those lines, here is a recent TED video in which  David Byrne discusses the aspect of acoustics influencing the creation of music.

I think Byrne makes some great points…and  I remember learning that in certain pieces by Berlioz and Bruckner, you find a whole measure of rest, or GP (Grand Pause). It turns out that the rest is there to “clear the room” of the accumulated sonorities of the music up to that point.

Do you take the room into account when you select music? Do you alter your instructions to your ensemble to account for a “new” room? Please leave a comment below and let me know.

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