Of Sounds And Silence

Volume 49, Issue 3 :: By Steven J. Orfield

Anechoic Chamber

‘The Quietest Place on Earth,’ according to Guinness World Records, is the Anechoic Chamber at Orfield Laboratories, here set up with a head and torso simulator.

What is the experience of attending church in the modern era? How has it changed from our childhoods and those of our family a number of generations removed? What is it that earlier people experienced, what do we experience, and what is the experience of children? And what part does the aural (acoustic) and perceptual environment play for these different generations?

It’s safe to say that in the early to mid-1900s, entering a church was that act of leaving the world and entering into a quiet, sacred space that was designed to provide a contrast to the rest of our lives. Joseph Campbell had much to say about this experience of “transcendence” to an alternative world, whose very contrast helped create the religious experience. Perhaps one of his most famous quotes is: “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.”

From entering and smelling the brick or stone, to perceiving the drop in temperature, to adapting to the dimmer level of illumination and to listening to the reflections of our footsteps reverberating in the silence, we were moving from a circumstance of perceptual noise to one of perceptual silence. If we visited the church when a service was not in progress, this silence was all the more enveloping. Religion to many of us—particularly Christians–was this sensory experience of leaving one world to enter another, and it was strongly shaped by the visual, aural, thermal, olfactory, and tactile sensations that we experienced when we visited.

Experiencing traditional church environments moved us out of sensory abundance (or overload) into sensory deprivation, from sensory confusion to sensory clarity, with few sensory signals and a clear identity signature as part of the experience. Acoustically, such spaces were quieter, more reverberant, and so full of simple sensory cues that it was easy to imprint on an aural or other sensory memory that can resurrect the feeling of this space when recalling it.

Current Trends Influencing Church Design

While the spirituality of the last century was a common expectation, we are now facing a multitude of forces that have for some time been pushing the design of churches in other directions. The typical Christian church is now more of a social environment, a far more intense musical environment, and (as is a shopping center) a marketing environment. It is aurally far less reverberant. And while it could be a quiet place to visit when services are not occurring, only small numbers of people visits empty modern churches for prayer and meditation.

So the experience of the modern church is one of activity, noise, bright lighting, entertainment, and mainly the scents of the modern construction materials that were used to build the building, make the furniture, or assemble the pews. In terms of an aesthetically pleasing aural environment, there really is none. There is just the sound of the audio system, the music, the choir, the congregation, and their process of worship. The acoustics have been supplanted by reinforced audio. In so many churches now, there really is no “acoustical presence” of the room itself. This is not an indictment of the newer approach to church design. It may be very satisfying to the congregation and worship staff. Yet the current state of worship in the US and other countries is worth attention and reflection.

In Many Ways, Younger Americans Are Less Religious Than Older Americans

Percent of US Adults who say…

Silent Generation (born 1928-1945)Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)Generation X (born 1965-1980)Older Millenials (born 1981-1989)Younger Millenials (born 1990-1996)
Religious Behaviors
They pray daily6761564639
They attend services at least weekly5138342728
Religious Beliefs
They believe in God9292898480
With absolute certainty7169645450
They believe in heaven7574726768
They believe scripture is the word of God6964615052
They believe in hell5759595556
Religion's importance
Religion is very important in their lives6759534438

Table 1. Source: Pew Research Center, 2014 Religious Landscape Study, conducted June 4-Sept. 30, 2014

Current Trends in Church Attendance

While we are investing far more heavily in buildings and technology systems, as well as sharpening our focus on entertainment and better storytelling, church attendance is falling among the young worshipers who are assumed to be the future of these institutions.

Is the American public becoming less religious? Yes, at least by some key measures of what it means to be a religious person. An extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center of more than 35,000 US adults finds that the percentages who say they believe in God, pray daily, and regularly go to church or other religious services all have declined modestly in recent years.

The falloff in traditional religious beliefs and practices coincides with changes in the religious composition of the US public. A growing share of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, including some who self-identify as atheists or agnostics as well as many who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Altogether, the religiously unaffiliated (also called the “Nones”) now account for 23 percent of the adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007.1

If churches are to be a physical representation of the their attendees, there are some interesting questions to answer. And there may be lessons to be learned from their Christian past and from the present practices that circumscribe “spirituality” among many who do not support traditional Christian or other faith traditions. This includes those who find new resonance with the practices of mysticism and meditation. And there are some interesting findings in the current research into perceptual noise and perceptual silence.

Environments of Mysticism and Meditation

The traditional designs of Christian churches were based on the practice of prayer and meditation that were inherent in early Christian spiritual practice, and in the mysticism of being removed from the real world and vested in the mystical practice of communing with God in a very private way. The aural practices that supported these worship forms included silence, chanting, and repetitive prayers that were unconscious methods of transcending the world outside. Joseph Campbell called this practice of religious symbolism “myth.”

In an interview, Tom Collins asked Joseph Campbell: “What does myth do for us? Why is it so important?” Campbell responded: “It puts one in touch with a plane of reference that goes past one’s mind and into your very being, into your very gut. The ultimate mystery of being and nonbeing transcends all categories of knowledge and thought. Yet that which transcends all talk is the very essence of your own being, so you’re resting on it and you know it. The function of mythological symbols is to give you a sense of ‘Aha! Yes. I know what it is, it’s myself.’ This is what it’s all about, and then you feel a kind of “centering.”2 Thus, Campbell believed that myth could create a bridge beyond thought to the direct experience of transcendent aspects of oneself.

And whatever you do can be discussed in relationship to this ground of truth. Though to talk about it as truth is not the point, because when we think of truth we think of something that can be conceptualized. It goes past that. (This is a reference to Campbell’s interest in non-dualism, the early Christian belief of the mystical saints that religious thought could, in the end, not be expressed, as it was “transcendent,” and religion was a symbolic representation of that transcendent, non-ego-based experience of religion.)

Campbell was concerned with the translation of the symbol inherent in mythology with the literal attribution of this symbolism as historic reference. He wrote: “I’m calling a symbol a sign that points past itself to a ground of meaning and being that is one with the consciousness of the beholder. What you’re learning in myth is about yourself as part of the being of the world. If it talks not about you, finally, but about something out there, then it’s short. There’s that wonderful phase I got from Karlfried Graf Durkheim, ‘transparency to the transcendent.’ If a deity blocks off transcendency, cuts you short of it by stopping at himself, he turns you into a worshipper and a devotee, and he hasn’t opened the mystery of your own being.”3

Campbell also noted: “There are plenty of mystics in the Christian tradition, only we don’t hear much about them. But now and again you run into it. Meister Eckhart is such a person. Thomas Merton had it. Dante had it. Dionysus the Areopagyte had it. John of the Cross breaks through every now and again and then comes slopping back again. He flashes back and forth.”4

Thus Campbell was talking in the same terms as the early Christian non-dualists and other mystics who would argue that God cannot be found in a literal interpretation of the concrete symbolism of religion. He argued that you must look past the symbolism to what it reveals about you. Part of the embrace of silence and mysticism related to the design of the spaces at that time, as well as the structure of the services themselves. And the early Christian churches were built in such a way as to support the unfolding of transcendent experiences.

Environments that Facilitate Religious Experience

If we are to look to religious environments for what they evoke in us, do we need to go back to traditional environments? It could be quite useful to do so, as our visits to those old cathedrals and basilicas can quickly engender great shifts in our feelings and sensations. Yet we can also take another turn and simply look at how those spaces were designed, what evocative symbolism was contained within them, and how this can be transferred into more modern churches and religious buildings. Our work in Christian church design (acoustics, lighting, daylighting, thermal comfort, indoor air quality, and occupancy research) suggests that a church that has a lot of the feel of the older spaces, yet is a modern in architectural design, can be designed very economically. This is true because the acoustics of the traditional church were based on its vertical plan (long front to back), and this type can carry more reverberation time, due to its production of more useful reflections. It is also relatively easy to incorporate the elements of more traditional church buildings, such as barrel vaults, without building them as structural elements.

Since these buildings have narrower structural spans they are often considerably less expensive to build than the more modern shapes so often used now, including the diamond, pie, square, boat, and circular churches that are often based on less distance between the worshiper and the celebrant or the worshiper and other congregants. These churches can also be built with adjustable acoustics, so that services can be held with the longer or shorter reverberation times that may be preferred for different styles of services.

Exploring Congregational Notions About Design

Acoustical treatment of a round worship space

Acoustical treatment of a round worship space. Photo courtesy of Orfield Laboratories.

Discussions about traditional shapes and symbols tend to be very controversial in modern congregations, as there is so often a set of rules about design as well as a liturgical consultant directing interior design. It is a fair question to wonder whether these types of solutions are “old fashioned” or actually do encourage more transcendence (or engagement) in modern services. We explored this question a decade ago via the use of our visual jury process in order to measure the feelings and associations of the congregation. Our visual jury process, called Perceptual Market Research (PMR), is based on showing sequential images of a product or building (church) while a group of subjects takes a written or computerized test. In the test they rank and select a set of bi-polar attributes that represent two nominally opposite pairs of words. In our past articles for Faith & Form, the semantic choices for each church design are noted in Table 2, with a 1 – 7 semantic differential ranking:

This PMR process was originally developed for assessment of sound quality of products, and has been used extensively on products by major manufacturers, such as Harley Davidson, Whirlpool, Black & Decker, Kohler, Cessna, and Herman Miller.⁵ PMR is based on the fact that qualitative research on groups of individuals participating together (focus groups, design charettes, etc.) has no predictive validity, as they gather opinions rather than feelings, and they are very group dependent and group biased.⁶ So if you want to measure a congregation’s feelings about church design accurately, you must use methods that eliminate group dynamics and that measure feelings and associations, rather than opinions.

In the case of the congregation we measured, they thought they wanted a modern white box church with a vaulted ceiling, and they knew architects that designed those. Yet their rankings suggested, as Campbell may have guessed, that symbolic shapes and symbols were highly influential in moving them in another, yet modern, direction. Their opinions echoed design practice of the time, but their rankings were far more elemental and spiritual. This effort demonstrated that the congregation’s feelings were far more textured and deeply complex than their associations.⁷

This process is fundamental to the measurement of people, and without that measurement we drop back into the design charette process that architecture depends on.

Orfield Table 2

Silence as a Calming Experience

While silence was clearly a predominant aspect of the early Christian experience of attending church, some may wonder about the utility and value of silence in this day and age, and whether perceptual and auditory silence ought to be a variables of significant consideration in current church design, and in the lives of the population in general. There is ample current research to support that the answer is yes.

We have long known that silence lets people relax and tends to bring their minds to more clarity. This has been established by meditation practice, by quiet prayer, and more recently has become the subject of scientific study. Orfield Labs has tracked this impact of silence closely, as we have a federally accredited acoustic lab with an anechoic chamber called “The Quietest Place on Earth” by Guinness World Records in 2005 and 2013, with levels of (-) 9.4 dBA and (-) 13 dBA as levels of background sound below the threshold of human hearing.⁸

In our own informal tests of the value of silence, we have seen subjects spend a half hour to one hour in the chamber, and to report substantial “reset” to their level of relaxation. We also experienced one sailor, from an aircraft carrier in the Middle East, who came to visit with a persistence of sound (he could not stop hearing takeoffs and landings, while on leave), who spent one hour in the chamber, and his persistence of sound was gone (as reported on the NBC “Today” show). We’ve had visits from a number of people diagnosed with autism who have had similar experiences with reduction of anxiety, and we are now in discussions with a number of medical centers with regard to silence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

We’ve had a 10-year specialty in developing architectural standards for perceptual environments (increasing environmental silence by selectively decreasing the complexity of some stimuli, visually and cognitively, and tailoring specifications to the needs and preferences of the target population) for those with perceptual or cognitive losses or disabilities, most recently aging and autism. We are currently engaged by Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. to help with a design competition, which includes developing Building Performance Standards and Perceptual Space Standards for a Universal Design effort to deal with all the possible disabilities on campus, including deafness, blindness, aging, autism, PTSD, mental Illness, SPD, ADHD and others.⁹ These populations describe at least 40 percent of the general population, and design should always taken them fully into account. Environments that tend to calm down people with disabilities are generally preferred by non-disabled persons as more peaceful environments as well.


The silence we feel when visiting a cathedral or quiet church is more than just an interesting phenomenon. It influences the brain, sleep, wellbeing, relationships, and our entire journey through life. In the wisdom of spiritual and religious traditions, our ancestors must have had some clear sense of the importance of silence in their traditions of worship and meditation. As we watch our younger generations claim spirituality but not religion, it might be good to revisit the wisdom of our traditions and to try to give young people more meaningful experiences on their own terms (which used to be ours) and to learn from them the value of spirituality that we once understood and that has been lost, as noise in churches has overtaken silence, and there is no longer a modulation between the social and the spiritual in many of our houses of worship. We need to look back and learn from many traditional symbols and patterns and to understand the psychology and perceptual basis behind their success.

  1. Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study, 2015.
  2. Tom Collins, Interview of Joseph Campbell, “Mythic Reflections: Thoughts on Myth, Spirit, and Our Times,” http://www.context.org/iclib/ic12/campbell/
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Steven J. Orfield, “Sound Quality: A New Paradigm in Psychoacoustics,” Sound & Communications, Part 1, pp. 3-92.
  6. Steven J. Orfield, “User Experience and Heritage Preservation; a team driven by user benchmarks may provide a quite valid preservation effort at a much lower cost,” Society for College and University Planning, Planning for Higher Education, April-June, 2011.
  7. Steven J. Orfield, ASID White Paper, “Better Lighting & Daylighting Solutions,” January 2005. See also: Carlson, Scott, “Campus Architecture by Consensus?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2010.
  8. “The Earth’s Quietest Place will Drive You Crazy in 45 Minutes,” Smart News, The Smithsonian Institution, December 19, 2013.
  9. Steven J. Orfield, “User Experience…”

The author heads Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, the nation’s only multi-perceptual lab, consulting on design, research, and testing in architecture and product development. Orfield Laboratories provides consulting in acoustics, daylighting, lighting, thermal comfort, indoor air quality, audio visual systems, occupancy quality research, and research on occupant perceptual comfort and perceptual preference.