Can We Sing?

I am a pastor. I am not a scientist, I am not a doctor. I took “zero” classes on epidemiology or respiratory infections in seminary. Below is a summary of findings from academic journals or articles published by research universities on the science behind the risks of singing indoors in a Covid-19 world. But, because I am not a doctor or scientist, maybe take my words with a grain of salt and do some research yourself.

Since the number of perspectives on Covid related dangers are legion, and often are bound up in our own political prejudices, I’ve avoided any articles from typical news outlets that might be tempted to spin data according to their own biases and have stuck to more academic publishings.

University of Colorado

This article comes from America and examines the choir practice that took place in Skagit Valley, WA on March 10th that led to 53 of 61 members present contracting Covid after one member with the virus showed up to sing. Many of the warnings about indoor singing came from this incident. The article concludes that unmasked singing in poorly ventilated areas with less than six feet of distance between the singers provides a highly infectious environment for the spread of Covid-19. The singers in Skagit Valley were predominantly older (75% of them were over 65), did not wear masks while singing, and met for nearly 2.5 hours of singing practice, singing nearly the whole time. (Published Sept. 15, 2020)

University of Freiburg

This article comes from Germany and explains that the danger of air-droplet transmission during singing is no greater than talking and has more to do with the amount of sharp consonants used (plosives and fricatives) than volume. It does, however, state that it appears that aerosols (which can transmit Covid-19) projected by singing do increase. All in all, though it states that congregational singing in religious services can be done with very little chance of infection spread if:

  • Masks are worn
  • Good hygiene is practiced
  • There is 6 feet of distance between singers (or family units)
  • The room has a ceiling of 30 feet or higher
  • The room has a modern ventilation system running (HVAC)

    (Published July 17, 2020)

Lund University

This article comes Sweden where they ran an experiment measuring the aerosols expelled during singing. They explain how aerosols (which can transmit the virus) do increase when singing. However, they explain that if social distancing is used and participants are singing in large, well-ventilated areas than gathered singing can be done safely. Further, “When the singers were wearing a simple face mask this caught most of the aerosols and droplets and the levels were comparable with ordinary speech.” (Published Sept. 17, 2020)

University of Bristol

This article comes from England where 25 different professional musicians of different genres performed various exercises, such as singing or speaking “Happy Birthday” at different volumes and pitches. They concluded that singing is no more risky than speaking, noting that it is the volume at which one speaks/sings that is the higher indicator of whether or not there are greater aerosols spread, not singing in of itself. (Published August 20, 2020)

Conclusion

Covid-19 cases are spiking everywhere. It is both wise and loving for all of us to do our part and exercise caution as more and more cases spread. This is what has led to many governors across the nation to roll-out new quarantine measures, shutting businesses down, “cancelling” Thanksgivings, and limiting any kind of social gatherings. It is what has led to my governor to advise religious assemblies to forbid congregational singing.

As a Christian, I care deeply about my community and take seriously my personal responsibility to not act foolishly. Further, I am conscience bound to submit to the governing authorities God has placed over me, as Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, and Titus 3:1-2 tell me. However, if the governing authorities over me require me to sin or needlessly (or maliciously) prohibit Gospel ministry, I am no lounger bound to adhere to those strictures (Acts 4:19; 5:29).

Parsing through whether or not the government’s requests are legitimate or not, however, is not simple and requires a great deal of wisdom, patience, and humility. That is why I wrote this. I would be leery of someone who makes it sound like these decisions for churches today are simple or immediately transparent.

The Bible commands Christians to sing together (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19)–the largest book of the Bible (Psalms) is entirely dedicated to singing! The Church has practiced corporate singing since its very inception (1 Cor 14:26; cf. Matt 26:30; Acts 16:25; James 5:13). If we are to abandon this command, we need good grounds for doing so.

If singing leads to a spike in infections and those infections lead to more deaths, then that would be a good reason for the church to temporarily pause congregational singing.

However, unless all of the above studies are wrong, it would appear that the Church can practice congregational singing without endangering others provided they do so responsibly, wearing masks, staying six feet apart, and meeting in large rooms with good ventilation (and don’t sing for two and a half hours!). If a congregation could not abide by these measures, then congregational singing would indeed be a risky and dangerous event.

Each church will have to arrive at their own conclusions about what to do and we should be quick to extend grace and assume the best in those who arrive at different conclusions than we do. A pastor may know that he cannot convince his congregation to wear masks while singing and decide that stopping it is the best option possible. Another pastor may think the risk just simply isn’t worth it. And another pastor may think that the mitigated risk is within the realm of responsibility, and encourage his congregation to wear masks, social distance, and sing. No matter what, we pray for the Church to be unified, courageous, humble, selfless, and obedient to our Lord in this truly, remarkably abnormal time we are living in.

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