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Case Study: The Catholic Church

What do the Roman Catholic Church, James Bond, & Apple all have in common? No, this is not a set up for a bad joke, rather it is what we are going to be looking at over the next couple weeks! All three of these brands have incredibly strong sonic identities. They don’t necessarily have the traditional audio assets like a jingle or an audio logo, but sound is an inherent element of their brand experience. We can look at how these brands have utilized sound in different ways to become cultural mainstays around the world, and how you can take these ideas and apply them to your business.


This week, we are looking at the Roman Catholic Church, which can be considered one of the most successful brands of all time. The Catholic Church has a long and rich history with its use of sonic branding. As a refresher, sonic branding is the intentional and consistent usage of sound that aligns and supports the brand values and belief systems.


Even if you aren’t Catholic, I am sure there are associations you have with the sound of Church. You may think of the various instruments we associate with the service, the physical sound of the space itself & maybe a hymn or two. You may even be more historical and know about Pope Gregory I’s contributions to music history, specific court composers, and/or even how music was a leading reason for Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation.


Singing and Live Performances

Music and Sound are a very important part of all brands, and in this organization in particular, a consistent usage of sound to reinforce brand values is incredibly powerful. There will definitely be variations as you travel to any Catholic church all over the world, but even this in itself can be seen as stemming from the brand itself!


One quick note: The Catholic Church is old. Like old old. You may notice a word I am using a LOT is “sound” rather than audio. Some people will use them interchangeably, but in this case in particular it is important to differentiate between them. Sound is the physical vibrational frequencies traveling through a medium such as air or water. Audio is specifically the electrical representation of sound. Some will even get furtherly pedantic and create the distinction between “Sound” as a human perception of the physics and a “sonic event” as the pure objective quality of sound in air, regardless of it being perceived or not (Looking at you, falling trees in the forest). For our purposes, this distinction can be disregarded.


Anyway, this is why we might look at the variations of sound across churches in this same religion as a characteristic of the sonic branding itself: it is human, it transcends time and technology, & most importantly it is . Music in the Catholic Church is very often performed live by volunteers in the community (though some specialists do get paid). The priests themselves may even lead the congregation in hymns, and some of the sacred text itself is also sung as a chant, where he stays mostly on one note and then change pitch on important words for emphasis. Furthermore, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, this singing plays an even more important role: when the Church prays and sings, Christ is present. Music also plays an important role in the structure of the mass itself – sometimes whole sections are entirely sung. Other times, the dialogue between the priest and the congregation takes the form of a call and response musical section.


The use of pre-recorded audio is sometimes used, but for the most part, the live human experience far outweighs the potential benefits of a standardized audio program. Singing itself is a core belief in the church: “The quality of our participation in such sung praise comes less from our vocal ability than from the desire of our hearts to sing together of our love for God. Participation in the Sacred Liturgy both expresses and strengthens the faith that is in us”. All this singing is typically done in simple melodic lines. The quality of the voices is less important than the participation. A live performer leading the congregation will typically make it easier for others to sing along as well, further emphasizing the importance of participation in the “brand experience”.


“Singing is for the one who loves.”

- St. Augustine

Characteristic Instruments

In addition to the choir/vocal soloists, there are some instruments that have a semiotic relationship with the church. For example, the organ. The organ’s relationship with the church dates back to 812 when Charlemagne (yes, that Charlemagne) requested an organ for his chapel in Aachen. Since then, the organ has been through many evolutions into what we have today. Often massive pipe organs encompassing a huge section of the church, these instruments are used to accompany hymns and other religious songs, and played in almost all church services – further establishing its connection to the “brand” through its consistent usage.

One function that made the organ so popular, besides it’s timbrel qualities, is its acoustic properties: the massive size of the pipe organs in conjunction with the high ceilings in many churches/cathedrals allow these instruments to get quite loud with no amplification needed. It is a functional design choice that we still continue to use today, though amplification is occasionally used with digital/virtual organs to maintain a similar timbrel quality in smaller spaces.


According to various statements from Canon Law, various statements from Pope’s, & more (to be looked in the “Brand Guidelines” section below), music is most often played on wind instruments and instruments played with a bow. It is only fitting then that the pipe organ, woodwinds, and a string choir are all commonly associated with the Church (in addition to the human voice, of course). This recently became a little more nuanced, but for most of “Church music” this is the basis of the orchestration.


Usage of Music

Music is a very impotant part of the Catholic religion. It accompanies many different acts of the church and is involved in nearly all of it’s services. A standard Mass may have music when the priest enters, while they pray, while various important moments occur, while the priest exits and more. Funerals, weddings, & other special services put on by the church make use of specific music as well to further enhance the experience. The priest even sings some of the prayers on his own during the service!


Outside of the Church services (masses), the Church may utilize songs to teach kids important “brand” messages. One such example is “Jesus Loves Me”. Anecdotally, having grown up in the Catholic school system, we would sing these A LOT in school concerts for parents etc. And even though I never listened to these songs after turning like 7, I can still remember how many of them go – a testament (pun intended) to the power of music and brand messaging.


Brand Music Library


There is a deep and rich “brand music library” within the catholic church consisting of many hymns and songs. Famous composers such as Bach & Beethoven have even contributed pieces of music (if not entire masses!) to the Church. Many were even hired by the Church solely as composers. These pieces of music have been utilized and adapted for centuries, though there are hundreds of songs a church service might utilize. The Church would even adopt music that wasn’t written for it, which would eventually become part of it’s core musical vernacular: Mendelsohn’s Wedding March, composed as incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is our classic “Here comes the Bride” theme played at almost every wedding, Catholic or not. The Catholic Church has even adopted hymnes from other belief systems, such as the quakers. All in all, there is a rich selection of curated music the Church adopts and utilizes. It may not be custom written for Church services, but they align with the brand messages and have been adopted and adapted to better suit the “brand experience”


Functional Sounds

Outside of music, the church is most recognized sonically by it’s use of bell’s. “Wedding Bells” for instance are typically rung at the end of the ceremony to announce a couple’s marriage and are a symbol of abundance and prosperity. Bells are also rung at funeral services, as well as in general as a call to prayer. These bells are typically very large and high up, so people in the nearby town can all hear it. This is very similar functionally to a sonic logo – it gets people thinking about the brand and calls them to take action.


Another functional sound the Church utilizes is during the most sacred moment of the Catholic mass – at the precise moment of the consecration when it is believed that the bread & wine have been transformed into the body & blood of Christ. At this moment, typically an alter server will ring a small bell to draw special attention to it.


Physical Space


Though every Church is physically different, there is an iconic “Church Sound” we are all familiar with. Many of the most famous and classic Churches & Cathedrals were built with high ceilings. This was architecture being functional for many years, as the high ceilings would allow more light in, carry the heat up and away from the congregation, as well as being physically impressive and representative of the Church’s importance in that area. There are many other possible reasons for these, including a display of wealth, to enhance the “visual” and “physical” part of the religious experience, as well as to help the Church stand out from the buildings around it. Regardless of the “why’s” of these architectural design decisions were, one thing is clear: The high cathedral ceilings offer a unique sonic space often linked to the Church.


Think about it: have you every stood in a quiet church and said something loud just to hear how it sounds in that environment? Or have you ever opened up a reverb plugin and saw IR’s or presets for cathedrals and wondered why? The acoustics in a Cathedral are very unique and to many, often quite pleasurable and desirable.


Brand Maintenance/Guidelines

Various popes (aka CEOs)/congregations have issues their stance on what is and isn’t allowed musically as the Church tries to evolve with the times while maintaining it’s core identity. Over the past 2,000 years there has been a lot of writings by the Church on what is or isn’t allowed to be a part of the service. In fact, as mentioned earlier the extravagance of the music itself was a large reason for the Protestant reformation. Nowadays, the Church is pretty broad on what is or isn’t acceptable. For example, Pope Pius XII wrote the following in 1958 on which instruments are allowed during the Church service:

  1. The use of any instrument should in itself be perfect: "It is better to do something well on a small scale than to attempt something elaborate without sufficient resources to do it properly."

  2. The difference between sacred and profane music is to be preserved: "Some musical instruments by origin and nature-- such as the classical organ--are directly fitted for sacred music; or others, as certain string and bow instruments, are more easily adapted to liturgical use; while others, instead, are by common opinion proper to profane music and entirely unfit for sacred use."

  3. "Only those musical instruments which are played by the personal action of the artist may be admitted to the sacred liturgy, and not those which are operated automatically or mechanically."5


So a lot of it may come down to the judgement of the serving body, however, it is quite clear that maintaining the sacredness and humanity of the Church service are of utmost importance, as music is sacred in the church service itself.

Coming Next

Next time, we will be looking in depth at the sound of one of my favorite franchises, James Bond. The 007 film franchise has been one of Hollywood’s strongest brands for over 50 years. Spanning 25 films, the sound and music may have changed slightly over the course of it’s history, however the iconic sonic identity of the brand remains, yet also adapts. It is a fascinating study in the power of sonic branding, so stay tuned!

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