About this blogger:
Richard J. Clark has served since 1989 as Music Director and Organist at Saint Cecilia Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He is also Chapel Organist (Saint Mary’s Chapel) at Boston College. For the Archdiocese of Boston, he directed the Office of Divine Worship Saint Cecilia Schola. His compositions have been performed on four continents.
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“The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceedingly swift and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat.”
— Dr. Domingos Pinto Coelho, noted lawyer from Lisbon and chairman of the Bar Association (1917)

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Carpeting Is the Enemy of Congregational Singing
published 17 July 2015 by Richard J. Clark

ERHAPS WITH A TOUCH of hyperbole I make this declaration: Nothing good can come of a carpeted church with regards to the Sacred Liturgy. Now, coming back down to earth, I maintain that the removal of carpeting is the most effective way to improve many aspects of the liturgy. Externally, what benefits most is congregational singing. Internally, a greater sense of reverence and prayer may permeate one’s heart.

I have touched upon the subject a few times including the use of natural sound to improve one’s music program. If one is considering a renovation, large or small, the removal of as much carpeting as possible will bring a world of benefits. Here are a few important things to consider about carpeting (and seat cushions!)


CARPETING ABSORBS SOUND.

Carpeting absorbs sound. Lots of it. A choir must work harder to project sound into the nave. Members of the congregation can’t hear each other nearly as well, perhaps just those in their immediate vicinity. Not professional singers, individuals in the congregation must work harder. Some give up.

With heavy carpeting comes a heavy reliance on microphones. As such, the Sacred Liturgy loses the transcendent feel of natural harmonics. When used improperly, microphones distort the blend of a choir. It is also not uncommon to hear a single cantor on a microphone unnecessarily overpower the congregation. This actually discourages congregational singing by creating a divide between cantor and congregation.

Consider these words from US Bishop’s document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (SttL):

103. Sound-absorbing building materials include carpet, porous ceiling tiles, soft wood, untreated soft stone, cast concrete or cinder block, and padded seating. Avoiding excessive use of such materials makes it easier to achieve the ideal of many voices united in song.


GIVE THE PEOPLE BACK THEIR VOICE.

Wood, marble, or tile, on the other hand, reflect sound. Churches with no carpeting are so much easier to sing in. One does not have to constantly sing loudly to fill the nave. A smaller choir can be more supportive of a congregation. One can utilize a broader range of dynamics. Those with weaker voices can contribute. Those with strong voices will flourish.

Microphones may be rendered unnecessary or utilized selectively. Relying only on the natural sound tears down the wall between musician and congregation. It gives the voice back to the people! And this is what chant and hymnody have done so well for hundreds upon hundreds of years.

Again, from Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (SttL):

104. The acoustics of a church or chapel should be resonant so that there is no need for excessive amplification of musical sound in order to fill the space and support the assembly’s song. When the acoustics of the building naturally support sound, acoustic instruments and choirs generally need no amplification. An acoustically dead space precipitates a high cost of sound reinforcement, even for the organ.


SINGING FOSTERS UNITY!

Congregational singing is an expression of unity with God and with each other. But sound that is absorbed is sound that is not shared. However, singing that reverberates throughout the church is mutually supportive. This in turn creates a stronger relationship with God and each other. Sing out and share your sound! Regardless of ability, God cherishes our voices equally.


WHAT IS THE EXPERIENCE OF THE CONGREGATION?

Some argue that carpeting or seat cushions make little difference in the acoustic when the church is full. This may be arguably true in an objective sense. But often such claims fail to consider the localized experience of a member of the congregation that is surrounded by carpeting or even seat cushions. They are not receiving any benefit from nearby reflective surfaces. The faithful in the pews continue to work harder and are likely to sing less in the long run.

102. If each member of the assembly senses his or her voice joined to the entire community in a swell of collective sound, the acoustics are well suited to the purpose of a gathered community engaged in sung prayer. If, on the other hand, each person hears primarily only his or her own voice, the acoustics of the space are fundamentally deficient. (Ibid.)


WHY IS THE CHOIR AREA NOT CARPETED, BUT THE REST OF THE CHURCH IS?

Even fully carpeted churches commonly do not carpet the area in which the choir sings. This helps choir members hear each other, and therefore produce a more unified and supportive sound. (However, it has minimal benefit for projecting sound into the rest of the carpeted church.)

That choir areas are routinely void of carpeting makes the case for why carpeting should be removed or minimized in the entire church. Why should the congregation not enjoy the same benefits of better hearing our neighbor? Why is the choir more special? It is not. We are united in the Eucharist and in the love of Christ.

31. When the choir is not exercising its particular role, it joins the congregation in song. The choir’s role in this case is not to lead congregational singing, but to sing with the congregation, which sings on its own or under the leadership of the organ or other instruments. (Ibid.)


WHAT ABOUT THE COST?

Like electronic organs that need replacing every twenty to twenty-five years, carpet replacement runs into a great deal more money. I watched carpeting in a church get dirty and frayed in less than ten years. I watched incense burn holes that needed replacing and repair. This was expensive. Then the manufacturer discontinued that particular color. Then what?

Removal of carpeting and replacement with a hard, reflective, and more beautiful surface will likely be a watershed moment. There’s no going back. Congregational singing will greatly improve. The architecture becomes more beautiful. The cost of maintenance of a durable (and reflective) surface can be minimal. No one will reminisce about the “good old days” when there was carpeting.

Let choirs and congregations sing, and therefore pray as one. Allow the architecture to help, not hinder. Seize this opportunity.

Soli Deo Gloria