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This blog post was originally posted in the Technologies for Worship Magazine audio e-newsletter.

intelligibility-house-of-worshipThe Bible speaks of the importance of hearing the Word, and also cautions “Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.” [1 Cor. 14:7 – 9 – New American Standard Bible]

To put this in modern terms, intelligibility is important. Just because your congregation can hear that someone is preaching does not mean that they can understand the words. While the scripture above was not written about the acoustics and sound systems used in our churches today, the same principles still apply.

There are lots of factors that go into determining if a given member of your congregation can understand what is said. First, there is the issue of language. Unless the preacher or other person speaking is talking in a language, dialect, and accent the listener understands, very little communication will happen. Even if everyone shares a common language, the care with which the words are enunciated can make a difference. Slang and colloquial usage can either help or hinder communication depending on the talker and listener sharing a common cultural reference.

Background noise can detract from communication, as can echoes or excessive reverberation of the room. Sound systems can to some degree help overcome acoustic limitations by raising the voice level over background noise, and if the sound system is designed correctly, by increasing direct voice relative to the reflections from the room.

How the sound system is operated can have a big effect on communication clarity. Realize for example that those new to your house of worship may not know the words to your songs, and making sure the words can be heard clearly in the middle of the music can really help. When running sound do not only think of “does this sound good”, but also “is this clear”. Remember you know the music well, and if it is the second service with the same sermon, you also know what will be said. It is easy to overlook poor clarity when you already know what is being sung or said. You should realize this unconscious bias and work to overcome it so everyone can hear and understand.

Lastly, you need to keep in mind that not everyone has perfect hearing. As people get older their hearing naturally gets worse. Some folk, even the young, have experienced hearing damage. This might be because of exposure to excessive sound levels, or it may result from medical conditions. No matter what the cause, we have to work extra hard to enable those with hearing loss to understand the service. Your church should consider adding an assistive listening system. Such systems let those with hearing loss hear the words and music without the effects of the room acoustics. This can greatly increase their ability to understand and enjoy the services.

In future issues of the newsletter, we will look in more detail at some of the factors that impact intelligibility and what you can do to improve things. The first and most important part is just being aware of the issue and running the sound system in a way to deliver the clearest sound you can.

Ray Rayburn, FAES
[email protected]

Ray has been an engineer in acoustics, audio systems, and telecommunications for over 30 years. He is the current chair of the AES Standards Subcommittee on Interconnections, is the author of Technologies for Worship Magazine’s bi-weekly audio newsletter and was one of the authors of the Handbook for Sound Engineers.

Ray has created some of the most advanced software-based project designs in use today, including the United States Senate Chamber, and taught the “advanced users” training seminars on the MediaMatrix configurable DSP product.

As a recording engineer for RCA, Ray recorded the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Frank Zappa. In 2009, Ray was made a Fellow in the Audio Engineering Society.

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