The Sound of the Word

Words. We use hundreds, if not thousands of them every day. In a plethora of languages, dialects and forms, words are the building blocks of our verbal communications.

Every sermon, homily, blessing, oration or prayer is made from words. Instinctively we “reach” for the right words to speak in any situation or moment. It is words that we look to and rely on to convey our message, feelings, ideas, meanings, concepts, and thoughts, to persuade and motivate, encourage and most importantly express our emotions.

It is often said that words cannot effectively convey emotions, but it is to words that we turn to do so, for we have no other path.

Words convey power and grace. It is through words that we seek to build our relationships with our faiths and our fellow worshipers.

So it is words that we must consider the essence of any religious observance. Of course, there are the familiar and comforting rituals, visuals and physical actions that are a part of any worship experience. But it is upon the building blocks of our words that we depend on.

Delivering Word

Within the HOW technology space, we rely on our sound reinforcement systems to ensure that the spoken word is heard by all. But let’s be extremely precise and absolutely clear here — we are using the available technologies to support, enhance, expand and strengthen the spoken word, not create it.

This distinction is often blurred and unclear to non-technologically fluent users, and clients/buyers.

It is absolutely essential that we as the ‘experts’ in this area make every conceivable effort to ascertain the level of understanding with each client, and resolve and fulfill the expectations we create.

Far too often we make assumptions about the level of cognition and knowledge that our HOW customers have about sound systems and acoustics. I have written several articles on these topics in the last few months. But no article, book or whitepaper can assure that you are communicating with your HOW clients. Thus it is crucial that you ask questions and ensure that what you are saying and trying to communicate is being understood.

Why? Because hearing and sound are a lot more complex than you might imagine.

The Brain and Hearing

For most of modern medical history, the way in which various senses operate within our brains has been only superficially understood. In fact, a lot of the early assumptions about how things worked have proven to be totally false. It is only in the last few decades that neuroscience and technology have combined to present a far more detailed and precise map of how the amazing capabilities of the human brain combine and overlap to produce our sensory capabilities.

When we talk about hearing, it would be logical and reasonable to assume that the part of the brain called the auditory cortex would be “in charge” of processing the information coming in through your ears. You would be both right and wrong in that assumption.


As you can see from the graphic, many additional parts of the brain related much more than just auditory processing are involved when you are listening to someone speak. All of these various “sub-systems” are interconnected, interlinked and collectively responsible for your ability to ‘hear’ and process sounds, especially speech and music. As the diagram and PET scan image below shows areas devoted to vision, motor control, emotion, speech, memory, organization and planning, all get turned on or activated when listening to the spoken word. This astonishingly complex but correlated processing structure is active, automatically and thus we need to be aware of how we can help the brain use all this processing power by insuring proper inputs and stimulation.

To better illustrate how complex this process really is let’s explore a little deeper into how your brain hears.
To examine links between specific psychological processes and brain activity science medical researchers use the fields centered on neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience. But the basis of this research and its application to practical purposes is focused through the scientific discipline of psychoacoustics, i.e., the study of sound perception by the human auditory system.

To do this, researchers use a unique imaging technology called PET scanning (Positron-Emission Tomography*), which produces astonishingly detailed images of electrical activity in the living brain. (For more on pet scanning, go here.)

For example, the image below is a normal brain listening to a JFK’s famous “Ask Not” speech (audio only).

Psychoacoustics has become an invaluable tool in designing hearing aids and cochlear implants and in the study of hearing generally. Psychoacoustics is fundamental. We need to know how the normally functioning auditory system works — how sound relates to human perception.

That field’s origins date back more than a century, to the first efforts to quantify the psychological properties of sound. What tones could humans hear, and how loudly or softly did they need to be heard?

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Pitch could be measured in hertz and loudness in decibels, but other phenomena were not so easily quantified. Human hearing can discern the movement of sound with a surprising degree of accuracy. It can distinguish timbre, the difference between a clarinet and a saxophone. It can remember patterns of speech, to immediately identify a friend in a phone call years after last hearing the voice.

Finally, there are the imponderables, things we do with our hearing simply because we can. For example, everyone in the developed world can easily identify the sound of a train passing. But, what is it about that sound that we can identify? How can we do that almost instantly?

Research seems to show that we can do this because our acoustic environment, such as the speech we hear, changes much faster than our visual environment, so we have to and have been constantly adapting to new situations. This is in all likelihood why the ability to localize and identify sounds was and is such a critical survival factor, and why it remains a built-in skill. It is how you are able to identify and focus on one voice in a babble of sounds in a crowded room.

What We Hear

Given the technology at our disposal, designing and installing a sound system that is distortion free, has excellent dynamic range and delivers intelligible speech is well within the capabilities and frankly the budgets of almost any HOW facility.

But judging the system’s capabilities, strictly based on technical specification, measurements and similar scientifically quantifiable data is NOT enough to ensure that the spoken word is delivered with its full emotional breadth and impact.

Let me illustrate this by offering the following examples of a system for a typical 200 to 400 seat worship space. That size range encompasses more than 60 percent of the HOW spaces in N. America — so its a ‘standard’ size and complexity.

System 1: An inadequately designed and but properly installed system that meets all the basic specifications for coverage, level, quality, and budget. However, it is bandwidth limited to around 80-100 Hz because there was no provision for LF support (subwoofers). Or the opposite, where it is band limited in the upper-frequency ranges because the components cannot reproduce sufficient level above 8kHz. And the system has a maximum output limit (dynamic range) of say 95dB due to design vs. audience sizing miscalculations.

System 2: The same space but now covered by a system in which full bandwidth, extended dynamic range (+3dB above expected maximum output needs) and coverage uniformity are built into the design and execution. By the way, the difference in total budget between the two based on hundreds of examples is probably less than 10 percent total.

The minor cost differential coupled with intelligent and thoughtful design will make System 2 deliver dramatically better emotional impact and create a much higher level of congregational involvement and focus on the words and the ideas being offered.

Listen to Your Work

Perhaps the single most overlooked and ignored aspect of sound system design and installation is a final step that should be automatic but surprisingly is not. After all the mechanical, electronic and calibration work is finalized and tested and the system is deemed functional — TAKE THE TIME TO WALK THE SPACE AND LISTEN!

Over the last 30+ years of being called in to fix systems, or solve problems, it is still amazing to find how many systems were tested, to the “is this on” level and deemed finished. Just because it seemingly works and measures appropriately does NOT mean it is doing the job intended — to fully and impactfully deliver the word.

Whether that word is being created by a powerful, highly energized deep voiced worship leader or a quiet soft spoken pastor, the nuanced cadences, subtle dynamics and modulation of their voices are what make them successful.

If those are not conveyed in full detail to the congregation then the system has failed to provide the final and crucial emotional impact triggers that make the brain light up all its sensory processing and deeply involve the individual in the service and the message.

The only way to verify this aspect of any sound system is to use the same judgment tools the congregation will use — their EARS! You must listen to the system, in various locations, at various SPL’s and with variable content that matches the worship style and program.

Only then can you determine if the non-scientifically quantifiable aspects of the systems design goals have been met. Does it deliver the power of the word? Does it make the listener pay attention; does it create a sonic environment that reinforces the worship experience?

After all, what is the point of the system if it cannot meet that basic need?

So, LISTEN! Listen again and ensure you are providing all the emotional content that the services create. Then you have succeeded.