Finding Harmony: the building as an instrument

Churches serve as a unique example of the relationship between architecture and music. Where in other music or performance venues there is a separation between performer(s) and audience, in churches this separation is not as defined. The audience, which in churches are often the congregation, are part of the performance, they contribute to the music. The singing of both the congregation and choir should be encouraged by the acoustic environment. Singers are easily discouraged by difficult acoustics, and don’t like singing if they cannot hear those around them. “Spaces generally inform the sounds we make in them. We instinctively adjust our voices to suit our context. And music has always been created to fit an environment. If the cave or chamber or cathedral has a pleasing reverberation or tone, our ears will want us to tune our sounds for pleasure…or drama.” [1]

Voyces Choir performing at St.Josephs

Musically, there are three things at the heart of the church; the congregation, the choir, and the organ. These three play an important part in the success of the function of the church, and need to be considered at the heart of the design. A unique factor within churches, and also some concert halls, is the organ. Organs need to be carefully considered and positioned within the design of the church to ensure they can be heard with warmth and clarity throughout the whole building. The is perhaps one of the only examples of a musical instrument being part of the fabric of the building, and a particular consideration during the design of that building. Churches are often used for musical performance, but almost always of the classical music variety. Churches, with their high ceilings and typically hard finishes, both on floors and walls, are more suited to the acoustic music of classical instruments than the amplified or electronic music of more modern instruments. As a classical musician, a harpist, I’ve had opportunity to perform in several churches, and have found the environment particularly complimentary to my music. The harp is often a hard instrument to hear in certain environments, however I find the acoustics of churches compliment the sound of the harp beautifully. 

The Organ in St.George’s Cathedral

The era of creating music to celebrate particular buildings came into being in the medieval era, a time of simple vocal melodies designed to resonate through large cathedrals. “Music was adapted to these spaces, as ambitious composers created ever more complex works to take advantage of the shape, the materials, and the size of a building. Ecclesiastic works were written to fit the domes of basilicas in Florence and Venice.” [2] Over the coming centuries composers became more acquainted with acoustics and sound design and organs became an essential part of church design. Musicologist Richard Troop says that composer J.S.Bach would use the organ in an unfamiliar church as a tool for gauging the size, shape and character of the building. [3]

Voyces Choir performing at St.Josephs

I spoke with a family friend, an experienced vocalist who performs in churches regularly, about her experience performing in churches. In her opinion singing in a church with good acoustics is fantastic, however not all of them have great acoustics, St. George’s Cathedral being one. Most churches are great for unplugged instruments, mostly due to the echo effect and the fact that the sound isn’t absorbed by carpet. She said most of the music she sings was designed for great acoustics, and a really good, well designed building will deliver a physical sensation of sound reverberation. [4]

“For centuries, cathedrals were built like musical instruments, made to elevate and enhance the human voice as an act of worship. And if the setting for the performance of a musical work can have an impact on our experience of the work, then why shouldn’t we see some buildings as intrinsically musical?”[5]


[1] “Searching for Harmony in Architecture.” Radio National. September 25, 2013. Accessed April 14, 2018.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Twycross, Dale. Conversation with the author. April 19, 2018.

[5] “Searching for Harmony in Architecture.” Radio National. September 25, 2013. Accessed April 14, 2018.


1. Unknown. Wells Cathedral Choir. Wells Cathedral, Somerset. Accessed April 16, 2018.

2. Babic, Nik. Voyces Christmas Concert. December 19, 2014. Voyces Incorporated, Perth. In Voyces. Accessed April 16, 2018.

3. Unknown. St. George’s Cathedral Organ. St George’s Cathedral, Perth. In South Island Organ Company Ltd. Accessed April 14, 2018.

4. Babic, Nik. Voyces Christmas Concert. December 19, 2014. Voyces Incorporated, Perth. In Voyces. Accessed April 16, 2018.

4. Harp, St George’s Cathedral. Caitlin Brice. 2012.

Caitlin Brice

Caitlin is currently a Master of Architecture student at The University of Western Australia.