In many noise ordinances, it has been common practice to exempt certain types of noise from controls in the public interest. Such exemptions typically include emergency service work, emergency vehicles, farm equipment, special events with a permit … and church bells.1
With the advent of electronic media, the exception for sounds from church activities has sometimes been expanded to include virtually all noise emanating from church equipment or activities.2 Unfortunately, this has led to abuses, as some churches, in their efforts to draw in a younger demographic, have virtually turned worship services into rock concerts – complete with booming bass, screaming guitars, and banging drums. These churches are often located near or in residential areas, and the sound from the “music” is carrying far beyond the church property, penetrating the walls and windows of residences hundreds, even thousands, of feet away.
Now the big question: “How does the sound from a “rock performance” in a church differ from a “rock performance” at a bar? If the law prohibits a bar from operating in a residential environment, should it not prevent a church from taking on the same role?
What’s the solution?
One can easily see both sides of the issue. The residents are entitled to “quiet enjoyment” of their property, without having to hear the “boom, boom” of a bass drum, the banging of drums or amplified guitars. On the other hand, the church simply wants to “make a joyful noise” and create an environment that will energize the congregation. How can both parties be mollified? Here are a few thoughts:
- Reduce the intensity of the sound. Determine the lowest acceptable level for (1) service performances and (2) rehearsals.
- Use a limiter in the sound system that can be set to significantly reduce very low bass (under 50Hz.) and settings on the mixer that will enable the overall sound level limits to be “locked” so over-enthusiastic young would-be “sound engineers” will not be tempted to increase those levels.3
- Limit the time and duration of performances, particularly rehearsals, to mainly daytime hours as negotiated with residents.
It’s all about being a good neighbor – and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
1 A typical ordinance exempts “sounds created by church bells or chimes.” Others specify time limits for “sounds “created by school, church, or factory bells or whistles.”
2 The most liberal exemption I have seen is in the Town of Chili, New York, where the ordinance exempts “the operation or use of any organ, radio, bell chimes, or other instrument, apparatus, or device by a church, synagogue, or school licensed or chartered by the State of New York.” This, in my opinion, opens the door to egregious abuse of the ordinance’s intent.
3 Very low frequency sound is non-directional and tends to “hug the ground.” The lower the frequency, any noise barrier, whether at the source or receiver, is less effective. This is why it is essential that the low frequencies must primarily be addressed.
Robert Andres is the principal of Environmental and Safety Associates, LLC of Baldwinsville, NY and Naples, FL. He is a Certified Safety Professional, Board Certified Forensic Examiner, and a member of the Institute of Noise Control Engineering (INCE). He has specialized in noise and vibration measurement and control since 1975, has been actively involved in writing and performing church music for over 50 years, and currently serves as the technical advisor to Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet.