Scripture compels us to “Shout to God will loud songs of joy” (Psalm 47:1). But when we lift our voices and play our instruments in praise to God, how loud is too loud? Especially in venues that benefit from amplification and sound systems, is there a right sound level for music in worship? There are many opinions and preferences in our day. Some like the volume turned up; others want it kept at a minimum.
Judgment of volume is both objective and subjective. Objectively volume can be measured with a decibel meter and compared to standards. We certainly want to keep the volume within safe and acceptable ranges for hearing. Also the kind and number of instruments we use will affect the volume. A worship band will put out more sound than a single guitar. A pipe organ can soar to much higher levels than a piano. Subjectively, our judgment can be affected by familiarity and preference. We tend to turn up the volume on songs we know and songs we like. We turn down songs we don’t like. Perception also plays a role in our judgment of volume. A worship band playing at 90 dBA might seem loud to us, while a pipe organ playing at 95 dBA seems glorious.
So when does loud become too loud? While there is no one right level for every venue and every congregation, there are some principles that can help bring clarity to the question of sound levels.
These are five principles to follow in setting volume:
The first priority is clarity, especially if our music is accompanying text. Aim to make the lyrics clear. In Colossians 3:16 Paul tells us to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” In the parallel verse, Ephesians 5:19, he speaks of “addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Our music carries the Word of God as well as our response to the Word in prayer and praise. We must the deliver and respond to the Word in a way that people can comprehend what is being said. Always when music is joined to text, keep the vocals up in the mix so every word is understandable and able to be heard. In all elements of the service—preaching, praying, singing—aim to make the words clear.
Aim to vary the volume in the service, especially during the music. Don’t make every song loud, and don’t make every song soft. Vary the instrumentation as you are able: sometimes voices alone (no instruments), sometimes with only one or two instruments accompanying, and sometimes with a larger group of musicians. We see in Scripture a wide range of dynamics in worship. There are times for quiet and stillness:
For God alone my soul waits in silence
(Psalms 62:1a, 5a)
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him
Be still, and know that I am God
And there are times to sing aloud and shout for joy:
Sing aloud to God our strength;
shout for joy to the God of Jacob!
and let your saints shout for joy.
And praise with loud clashing cymbals:
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
(Psalms 150:5 )
In Deuteronomy the people of God were told:
Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 27:9).
In 2 Chronicles:
They swore an oath to the LORD with a loud voice and with shouting and with trumpets and with horns (2 Chronicles 15:14).
At the dedication of Solomon’s temple “120 priests who were trumpeters” join with singers, cymbals and other musical instruments to “make themselves heard in unison” (2 Chronicles 5:12–14).
At the laying of the foundation of the temple in Ezra after the return from exile:
… the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away (Ezra 3:13).
And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away (Nehemiah 12:43).
In Heaven there is both silence and overwhelming sound:
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour (Revelation 8:1).
And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps (Revelation 14:2).
Even God Himself displays a range of dynamics:
The LORD your God is in your midst,
A Mighty One who will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness;
He will quiet you by his love;
He will exult over you with loud singing.
Our worship should exemplify the full range of dynamics found in God’s Word.
Along with variation, aim for appropriateness with volume. Be loud when you should be loud, and be soft when you should be soft. It is the worship leader’s responsibility to give direction for dynamics in the singing. There are times for restraint, times to pull back or not play at all. And there are times to soar, times to play as David did, with all our might (1 Chronicles 13:8).
The volume should make sense with what we are doing and saying in our music. Some songs require softness and gentleness. Others demand energy and loudness. Some can be sung either soft or loud depending on the moment. Music serves to emotionally express and interpret the text. We must be sensitive to and intentional with dynamics and musical texture so the music can serve the Word and not distract from it. Even in the same song, vary the dynamics. Take time to arrange the song in ways that will allow the music to convey and bring out the meaning of the words. Vary the instrumentation and harmonies to create dynamic contrast. Allow parts of the song to pull back and then build as makes sense with the words. Aim for appropriateness with the volume and instrumentation, so the music is fitting and not frustrating, helpful and not a hindrance.
Aim to serve the congregation well. While you will not be able to suit everyone’s preference for every song regarding volume, remember you are there to help them voice their songs to God in worship. The church is gathered to give glory to God, not marvel at the sounds and riffs of the musicians. Set levels that will serve the church family—that will draw them in and encourage them to participate.
The music should be loud enough, even when soft, to be heard and to the support the singing of the whole church. Most of the time the music should be soft enough, even when loud, so the congregation can hear themselves singing.
Finally, aim for excellence. Never substitute volume for preparedness and confidence. Volume (too soft or too loud) can certainly affect congregational singing. But volume isn’t the real killer of congregational participation, uncertainty with the musicians is. Be sure the musicians are well-prepared and the songs are arranged and presented well. Take time to practice and rehearse. Be sure everyone knows the songs and knows the arrangements, knows when to play and when not to play. As the musicians lead out with certainty—hearts and minds in tune to praise, the church family will follow. When the musicians seem unsure or unengaged themselves in worship, the people will hesitate and hold back. There are certainly times to bring loud praise to God, but at all times aim for excellence and give your best.
Sing to him a new song;
Play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
Scripture quotations are from the Holy BIble, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway.