Well, not really a "secret" but King Solomon did lay down the ground work to Modern Day Church Acoustics.
Is it possible for all Churches to have great acoustics? Would it surprise you that any church can afford high quality church acoustics in new buildings? Would it surprise you to know that modern day church acoustics is lifted directly from the design of the Solomon's temple?
What happens if we take the scriptures of 1 Kings Chapter 6 and apply it literally? What does the bible have to say about large room acoustics? Does the chronological order of 1 Kings give us a road map to modern day acoustics? Let's see what happens.
Here are some things to consider about Solomon's temple.
The temple took 7 years to build.
The walls and floors were made of stone.
The ceilings were made of beams and boards of cedar.
There were two main rooms.
The Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.
The Holy Place was a rectangle.
The Holy of Holies was a perfect cube.
At this stage the walls of both rooms are totally flat.
Can you imagine how the two rooms would have sounded?
The Holy of Holies would have kept ringing for over 10 seconds.
The Holy Place would have kept ringing over 12 seconds.
Background on Acoustics
The reflections of a person's voice in the temple before any acoustical treatment was used would have been so loud that it was impossible for two people to talk to each other more than 6 ft apart. Early reflections are called noise. Late reflections at the right volume and timing is musical. There are two parts to noise. Its strength, which is measured in Decibels. The second part is Frequency which is measured in vibrations per second.
To hear speech clearly, you have to be +15 to +25dB above the noise. Again, reflections that interfere with speech and hearing are called "noise." This is not to be confused with Reverberation or Echoes.
The First Attempt
When the walls of Solomon's temple were up and the ceiling was installed all of the walls and floor were bare stone. The noisy reflections would have been so strong that any conversation beyond 5 ft would have been marginal and at 8 ft impossible. Sure, you might understand a word here and there but nothing intelligible.
Let's put some numbers to this. To form most words, you need a dynamic range of sound energy. To say the word "bell" you need a sound pressure level of about 4dB. To say the word "airplane" you need about 12dB. The larger the word or the harder the consonant sound are, the greater range you need to form the words. The maximum is about 15dB. Then there is the range of how someone talks. If you read out loud a full page of the bible, your volume range can vary up to 10dB. This happens in day to day conversation. If you take the dynamic range of speech and the fact that people will change the volume they speak at, you need a dynamic range of 25dB. To hear everything that is being said, you have to be 20 to 25dB above all noise.
In the Holy of Holies - the square room - the signal to noise ratio at 10 ft would have been +3dB. You would not be able to understand anything said. It would be just noise no matter how loud you spoke. Just walking across the floor with leather shoes would create too much noise.
In the larger Holy place, the signal to noise ratio would have been about the same +4dB at 10 ft. Too much noise to understand anything.
Hearing God is not an option
This detail is important because when a high priest went into the Holy of Holies, he went to hear God speak. Some scholars said the listener heard an audible voice and some say a spiritual voice. Some even believe that the Ark of the Covenant was also a communication device. For this article, I will go along saying an audible voice coming from the direction of the Ark.
Now when the Priest or Prophet entered the Holy of Holies, he would have stood anywhere from 4 to 7 cubits from the Ark. That would have been 6 to 10 ft. At that distance, there is no way for the Prophet to have understood an audible voice. For many Christians who have visited a church construction site, this should sound familiar.
Wisdom of the Builder
If you have been through a church construction site and been in the sanctuary before any furnishings, seating (chairs or pews) and floor covering (wood, tile, terrazzo, concrete or carpet) is applied, then you will have experienced what Solomon's temple would have sounded like. It would have been a very noisy space. The ringing would seem to go on forever. 1 kings 6:7 says no iron tools were used to assemble the temple on site. With a room this noisy, you couldn't use them. The sound of such tools in the temple would have been deafening. People would have had permanent hearing damage. The workers would have to wait minutes for the room to quiet down in order to hear instructions. If iron tools were used, the assembly of the temple could have take years longer. These days when a building is under such conditions it is a safety issue. When you have a large space finished in Stone or Drywall and the room is clear and empty, at 5 ft hearing the other person talk is very hard and almost impossible when the humidity is over 80%. You are often asking people to repeat things or you have to get closer. Close enough to know if the other person is using a breath mint or needs one.
It is at this point every church has one of two choices. This is when you can make the church sound great or do nothing and allow the room to sound awful. This is the last chance at making the room sound great. Now is when you must change the signal to noise ratio from +3 to +25. Yes, because of the sizes of our modern churches and use of sound systems, you need a signal to noise ratio of 25dB. (Read my article on Signal to Noise.)
1 Kings 6:14. So Solomon built the house and finished it.
I believe that this is when Solomon did his first attempt at fixing the acoustics of the Temple.
1Ki 6:15 And he built the walls of the house within with boards of cedar, both the floor of the house, and the walls of the ceiling: and he covered them on the inside with wood, and covered the floor of the house with planks of fir.
The walls, floors and ceiling were covered in Cedar. This would not have changed the sound of the two rooms much.
Next, the floor was covered in Fir. If this is a chronological description, I suggest that this was another attempt at changing the room acoustics. You have Fir on top of cedar on the floor.
Then in 1Ki 6:18 "And the cedar of the house within was carved with knops and open flowers: all was cedar; there was no stone seen."
This was a complete covering of wood. Then it was all covered in gold.
From my point of view, this looks like a first attempt at treating the room acoustics. I would also speculate that this attempt failed and was not enough.
If this is indeed the order of how the temple was assembled, then what happens next makes great sense.
The acoustics in Solomon's temple was still unforgiving. Hearing speech would have been a horrible experience. It had to be. God gave us the laws of physics and those laws would have been applied equally in the temple. Otherwise it would have been mentioned as a miracle and none has been mentioned yet.
1Ki 6:23 And within the oracle he made two cherubims of olive tree, each ten cubits high.
If a cubit is 18 inches, then the two cherubs were 15 ft or about 4.5 meters tall. When the two Cherubim's were built and installed in the Holy of Holies or the Oracle room, these statues would have been high. 15 ft high with 7.5 ft wings. The cherubs were so big that they changed the sound of the room. How much of a change? An educated guess would suggest that speech intelligibility changed from 3 ft to about 10 ft. An improvement, but not a big enough change - but a change that Solomon may have noticed.
In 1Ki 6:28 And he overlaid the cherubims with gold.
A new plan that works
Between verse 28 and verse 29 of 1 Kings Chapter 6, something happened. Where the inspiration came from, the bible doesn't say. Out of nowhere come carvings of Cherubs and Palm Trees on all the walls. This one obscure and often overlook verse unlocks a key that gave Solomon satisfaction. It says "And he carved all the walls of the house roundabout with carved figures of cherubims and palm trees and open flowers, within and without." Soon as these carvings were mounted on the walls - all of the walls, it would have changed how Solomon's temple would have sounded. It had to have.
The carvings of the Cherubs we understand. These refer to angels, protectors of the Ark, protectors of God's Words and the Commandments and so on. What do palm trees have to do with spiritual matters? There are some references to palms later in the bible but there is nothing that would explain its use inside Solomon's temple. Lining the inside of the holiest place in Israel with palm trees doesn't make any sense. The most likely reason for the Palm Trees is to solve a BIG problem.
I speculate that Solomon heard the acoustical problems inside the temple and desperately wanted to do something about it. Their first attempt at fixing the acoustics failed. Solomon also wanted something that could be put on the walls and never have to be cleaned or maintained. Once the temple was blessed and open for worship, no one would be allowed into the Holy of Holies and I can't imagine a cleaning bee happening in the Holy Place either.
The Perfect Shape
This is when I wish I could say that God told Solomon what to do but the Bible does not say that. However, out of nowhere, the perfect solution comes up. A half round shape in various sizes. The Cherubs were one size and the Palm trees another. Somehow Solomon discovered that diffusion is the most effective way to control sound in the speech and musical range. The half round shape is the most efficient. How this miraculous discovery was made, no one knows but one thing is for sure, it works! How well does it work?
After reading about this over 20 years ago, I started experimenting with various types of diffusers. After reviewing and testing a number of excellent products, nothing out there seemed to be affordable for most churches. Then I was inspired to build a model of Solomon's temple. It was to one inch scale. Then I used the core of paper towel rolls to represent the Cherubs and Palm trees. Here just a few nuggets of what I learned.
Where is the proof?
To prove that this was not a false meaning to this interpretation of the scriptures, I set out to prove if this system worked or not. First I tested this in a few churches with temporary diffusers. After testing this in about 10 churches, I started telling churches to do this instead of traditional flat panel treatments. Every time it was installed, it worked flawlessly. Later I learned that for new churches, you can build larger outround diffusers out of Drywall, brick, blocks and any building material before the church was built. This system also worked. For new churches, this acoustical planning virtually added no cost to the church except for the cost of the information.
After studying all of this and today having hundreds of churches install or build a diffuser system similar to what Solomon did, it would be safe to say that God did indeed have something to do with this. It would also be fair to say the experiment is over and the most effective, most affordable and the most versatile acoustical system is what I call the "Solomon Sound System."
What can you use instead of Palm trees and Cherubim's. You can use anything. Cardboard Tubes, metal tubes, plaster, plastic, wood, drywall, plywood and much more. There is no limit as long as you have the right depth, lengths and sizes. They can be solid or hollow. They can be put into wooden frames and covered with cloth to make them look like flat panels. Once you know the sizes that you need, there is no limit in how to finish them in any church- even in modern and old Cathedrals, super churches and mega churches. Churches over 5000 seating have already experienced the benefits of this system.
The "Solomon Sound System"
The Solomon Sound System acoustical system affects every part of a church's worship program regardless of the denomination, worship style, the room shape and more. This system is not an excuse for Architects to suddenly ignore acoustical planning. If anything, it proves that acoustical planning works and no church should be built without it. This includes free standing churches, shopping mall churches, and warehouse churches and so on.
After careful studying the scriptures, the Bible doesn't say that Solomon was told by God how to finish the inside walls of the Temple. Solomon did have a number of visits from God or God's angels. Perhaps it was during one of those visits where God gave Solomon specific instructions. That is something we will never know here on earth. However, I do think God lead Solomon to that discovery. The fact that the events of Solomon's temple construction is detailed so much, it does lead me to conclude that God wanted us to know and use this acoustical system.
Modern Church Acoustics
For today's modern churches with the most modern and advanced sound systems, the Solomon Sound System is the only system that makes modern worship even better. In fact, many churches that don't have the kind of acoustics the Solomon system offers, they are being held back.
What other acoustical system is there that is affordable for any church and any size that can give the following benefits? The following are paraphrased descriptions from church members and leaders.
Modern-day Church acoustics started 3,000 years ago
This is only scratching the surface of what Solomon's acoustical system can do. So far, every room this system has been tried on, the results have been successful. I don't think that this is some new interpretation of the bible that is out in left field. This is a system that has been recommended in over 800 churches. 400 of them installed the system and the results proved and support this interpretation of the scriptures. Without such proof it would be meaningless.
There is other proof too that this works. There are a handful of 15th and 16th century Cathedrals that have similar acoustical features as in Solomon's temple and they sound amazing. Today those features would be too expensive to build, but between the pillars, life size statues, life size Stations of the Cross, angled window frames, stone edging and so on, there was indeed a great deal of acoustical planning in the past. Sadly, that information was never copied over from one generation to the next. Perhaps this is because no was around long enough to pass on the learned knowledge and to explain what the physical features were for and left out as being too excessive.
Many people quote the scriptures where it says "faith comes by hearing." Well, the faithful will come no matter what but the visitors, the strangers and those seeking God can't get much faith if they can't understand. Do the right thing and follow God's words and examples. Every church should sound great.
How do we know if we need this system?
Any church that exhibits any of the problems mentioned above needs acoustical help. You may think you have great acoustics but if the people on stage or at the altar are having problems hearing each other or themselves, you need help. When the floor monitors are as loud as the main speakers in the first 5 rows of audience seating, you need help. If your minister feels tired preaching after 20 minutes of a 30 minute sermon, you need help. Any church that is absent of any acoustical diffusion will have acoustical problems that should be address. Physics doesn't change because you're a church.
If your church is struggling, do an experiment. Cardboard tubes are cheap. Find a room in your church that can seat about 30 to 50 people. Make sure that the room is carpeted. Get enough tubes to cover 70% of the room's height and get enough tubes to be spaced around the room 3 feet apart. That should make enough of a change that everyone should notice a significant improvement. In the photo below, this church was thought to have the best acoustics in the area. When the tubes were placed in the room as shown, everyone in the church was shocked at how much of a difference the change was. The minister said it was effortless to preach. The upright piano had more bass and the mid range notes were as clear as a larger grand piano. The Organ sounded bigger, grander, louder and quieter. (That is what the organist said.) Even the sound system which was the wrong design for the room, the gain before feedback or working distance of the mic changed from inches to feet.
You don't need expert help to do a generic fix for most small and medium sized churches. Many churches have already done their own acoustics with flat panels as that is what churches do. If you're not happy with those flat panels then this is something you can afford to do. Knowing that you can get better results and great performance coping what was done in Solomon's temple is easy to do.
Finally, I often tell churches that this is not my plan or something new. This is a system I have been using in churches that hire me for 20 years. There are others that use this system but keep the information to themselves as if it is some kind of precious secret. I'm no scientist but how many churches do you have to do before you can say it is a proven system that works 100% of the time? The solution to great sound in a church has always been with us. I like to think of it as God's plan and God used Solomon to teach us about acoustics and about worship. Worship should be a joyous experience and this plan from the Living Word does bring the joy back to worship.
Joseph De Buglio is a born again Christian and has been working within the church community since 1981. In that time he has consulted, installed full turnkey sound systems, installed acoustical systems and sold sound systems in over 1000 churches. He has also studies, photographed and tested the acoustics of another 2000 churches in his travels around the world. He is based in Toronto, Ontario Canada and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The term "Solomon Sound System" is registered as a public domain term which cannot be trademarked in 1991.
To view an expanded PDF version of this article, please use this link. Solomon's Temple - Updated November 2011
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Copyright © April 2011