The pipe organ is an unamplified instrument and like other unamplified instruments, choirs or orchestras, the sound of a pipe organ is enhanced in a reverberant setting. Comparisons are often made between the room in which a pipe organ is installed and the soundboard of grand piano; the integrity of the soundboard is paramount to a superior sound. Incidentally, an excellent acoustic setting that serves a pipe organ well will also prove useful to encourage robust congregational singing. Poor speech intelligibility in such settings is often incorrectly blamed on the acoustic but the cause is more often a poorly designed or executed amplification system for the spoken word.
The surrounding acoustical environment and the placement of a pipe organ are key factors to the success of any organ project. A pipe organ should ideally be placed at one end of a room’s longest axis and to the extent that this is possible, the various divisions of the organ should all be grouped together. The organ should also be at such a height that it can project sound to listeners at the opposite end of the axis. Architectural features such as beams, towers, domes, deep arches or lowered ceilings will all have an effect on an organ’s ability to project tone.
The importance of silence in a worship space is a critical factor in evaluating acoustics. White noise within the worship space can take many forms, from outdoor traffic to a humming audio system to a raucous air conditioning system. Having a truly quiet worship space will not only make a surprising difference to speech intelligibility but will permit truly pianissimo musical moments.
In a related vein, we are sometimes asked how many stops a pipe organ ought to have. Many factors go into working out an answer to this question includes the size of the acoustic space, the size of the congregation, the denomination and nature of the church’s music programme, the organ’s placement within the space, the different ways in which the organ will be used and perhaps most importantly, the variety of tone and the dynamic range expected from the instrument.
This is a concise summary of the relationship between the pipe organ and acoustics in worship. If a pipe organ project is being considered in tandem with larger building renovations, we encourage our clients to engage a qualified acoustician to advise on the many complex and interrelated variables that contribute to the acoustic within a worship space. Oftentimes, the costs for the services of an acoustician are extremely modest in comparison with the remarkable improvements they bring to the overall project.