The soundscape of Orthodox Christian worship and participants’ experiences – at the start of fieldwork



Tuuli Lukkala is a doctoral student of Orthodox church music at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu.


At start a minor definitional note: when talking about worship as formal rites and ceremonies, I may use the words ‘divine service’ or ‘service’, used within the Orthodox Church especially when referring to a single worship ceremony.

Orthodox Christian worship is a combination of oral and written tradition, of change and stability. Many, if not most, aspects of a divine service are predetermined by instructions and rubrics, but the people performing the service still have some freedom. They are not immune to cultural, historical or ideological influences, and the decisions they make when performing services are related to their background and context.

An example of this can found in the near history of the Orthodox Church of Finland. The church became jurisdictionally independent of the Russian church in 1918–1923. During the whole 20th century, efforts were made to become more culturally independent as well. Elements of church life were nationalized or “Finnicized”, but also the idea of a transnational Orthodoxy was emphasized (Husso 2011: 198; Kemppi 2017; Takala-Roszczenko 2017). In church music, nationalization manifested itself for example in new compositions (Virolainen 2013: 13; see Picture 1) and transnationalism in adaptations of old chant from different chant traditions (Takala-Roszczenko 2015: 303–306) to the Finnish language.

Picture 1. Cover of a recording of the first composition of the Divine Liturgy in the Finnish language by Pekka Attinen in 1936. Recording: Chanters of St John the Theologian (2016), cover design: Leea Wasenius. Photograph: TL

Nationality and culture in the liturgical life of a church are an example of a question that can be studied and indeed has been studied historically, based on written sources. However, there are many questions that written sources do not have answers to, and the topic of my present study is definitely one of them. But why are we talking about soundscapes in connection with worship in the first place?

Worship is a multisensory experience in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory and gustatory elements all present. However, there is a strong emphasis on the sense of hearing. Throughout a divine service, there are always words that are being read or sung aloud and heard. This gives worship some of its main purposes: common prayer, as opposed to silent, private prayer, the sanctification of time (Schmemann 1973: 65, 121) and praising God with voice, essential for being human according to Orthodox teaching (Seppälä 2005: 63).

Worship as sanctification of time, as it were, is related to the physical ephemerality of sounds. People must set apart a certain period of time to go to a divine service, to listen, to sing, to pray together. From a cultural stance, the short-lived sounds are signs of activity and signs of interaction (Vikman 2010: 194). Both points of approach make focusing on sounds an apt way of studying Orthodox worship and its meanings to people.

The term “soundscape”, developed from the 1960s onwards (Sterne 2013: 184–187), can be understood as an auditory counterpart of landscape. Roughly defined it means everything a person can hear in a given place and time. It is important to note that the concept of soundscape includes subjectivity. What people perceive and pay attention to as well as the meanings people give to different sounds vary, and so do their experiences of soundscapes.

Sounds present in worship

Example 1: Bible reading in Divine Liturgy (see 8:21–9:53). Chapel of Sotkuma, Orthodox parish of Taipale, Finland. Educational video explaining the different parts of the Divine Liturgy. Video: Heikki H & team. Published on YouTube by

As we can hear in Example 1, the sounds of Orthodox Christian worship are mainly human voices that form a dialogue. Space also matters. In Picture 2 below we can see a scheme of a church building consisting of two parts: a smaller altar at the back and a larger nave. Between them there is an icon screen or iconostasis, with a door in the middle.

Picture 2: Scheme of a church building. TL

The priest and the deacon move between the altar and the nave during the service. The other voices are in the nave: the reader, the choir and the cantor leading the singing. Also the congregation participates in singing sometimes.

The metal cup hanging on chains that the deacon is holding and swinging in certain parts of the service is the censer, with incense inside. Swinging it makes a jingling sound that can be quite loud, especially if there are bells attached to the chains as in Picture 3. Censing is an example of a part of the soundscape of Orthodox worship that is not a human voice.

Picture 3: Censer with bells. Photograph: Nina Aldin Thune / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5)

Thus, the worship sounds include sung and read biblical texts, prayers and hymnography, the alternation of voices of different people, the alternation of reading and singing, different melodies and musical styles used, other sounds of liturgical action, and possibly other sounds, more or less related to the service itself.

What to study, why to study it and how to study it?

What, then, is to be studied in the soundscape of Orthodox worship? I have divided the preliminary research questions that guide the production of research material in this study into three rather broad groups.

First, as a background, I would like to gain overall knowledge of what the soundscape of worship consists of in Finland. What are the common denominators, and what kind of local variation is there for example in the singing repertoire, its use and other auditory elements?

Second, how are the varying soundscapes experienced by the participants of worship? What do people hear, what do they listen to? What would they like to hear or what do they expect to hear? What kind of meanings do they give to different elements of the soundscape and how do they interpret them? How do the experiences of participants with different tasks in worship differ from each other?

Finally, in what kind of contexts are the soundscapes produced and experienced? Who make the decisions involved in shaping the soundscape of a given service, and on what grounds? Are there ideals or other influences to be traced? How are questions of multiculturalism solved in worship, and how do people from different backgrounds experience this?

Why should we study these questions? There has been considerable change in Orthodox church life in Finland in the past few decades due to increased immigration. As worship is a central activity of the church, it is not surprising that this change can also be heard in divine services. Often several languages or music from different musical traditions are used within a single service.

However, this situation is rather exceptional among Orthodox churches around the world. In most countries outside the oldest sphere of the Orthodox Church – the Middle East, the Balkans and Russia – one can find Orthodox Christians from different ethnic or national backgrounds going to different churches, which will colloquially be known as the “Greek church”, the “Serbian church”, the “Romanian church” et cetera. Whereas most Orthodox Christians living in Finland, regardless of their background, go to the same churches and attend the same services together.

The migration of people will more likely increase than decrease in the future, and therefore understanding multicultural religious phenomena, such as how every-day practices like worship are organized and experienced, can be highly valuable for both religious communities and the societies they interact with.

As I implied earlier, Orthodox Christian worship and church music have traditionally been studied mainly by means of historical research. Interest in the present day on an academic level is fairly recent. Scholars around the world have started to take an ethnomusicological approach to Orthodox church music (e.g. Engelhardt 2009; Moisil 2014), but in Finland only sporadic observations of church music repertoire and liturgical practices have been published (e.g. Bastubacka 2015: 18–19; Olkinuora 2017: 175). Knowledge of how people experience worship is likewise scant. Studies taking a sensory approach have so far been mostly – again – historical (e.g. Lingas 2013; Pentcheva 2014).

To best elaborate on questions ranging from the elements of the actual services to the experiences and interpretations of people attending them, I have chosen to do ethnography in Orthodox parishes in Finland. Ethnography allows me to acquire a combination of different kinds of research material to answer this diverse set of research questions. I will participate in the worship and other activities of parishes, making observations, talking with people and interviewing them. I will also make audio recordings of services. I aim to visit all 21 parishes of the Orthodox Church of Finland. As it is a small church, with 60 000 members (Picture 4), the task is not overwhelming.

Picture 4. Parishes of the Orthodox Church of Finland and their centres (in 2018). The intensity of the blue colour shows the population of the parishes in relation to one another. The number of members of the biggest and smallest parishes are shown in figures. TL

I will spend two or three weeks in each parish depending on the size of the parish. I will conduct semi-structured interviews with different kinds of participants of worship: congregation members, singers, cantors, priests. I hope to interview altogether about 25 people from different parts of Finland, different ages and different cultural backgrounds.

If this was the most traditional kind of ethnography, I would have chosen two or three parishes and spent several months in each of them. Instead, I have opted for a more applied approach, considering the whole Orthodox Church of Finland one fluid field. This way I expect to get a grasp of local variation, and according to my initial experience there is some. I am a long-time member of the community I study, a trained church musician and a former cantor of a parish. I have grown to know five parishes quite closely – my own home parishes – and visited several others on a regular basis. I trust that this previous experience will aid me in finding phenomena to be studied and spotting cases relevant to the research questions more quickly, so that the study will not remain superficial. Being an insider poses challenges, among others regarding the self-evidence of the familiar, but it may also be of great help.

Complexities of beginning fieldwork

During the first month of my fieldwork (October–November 2018) I visited two parishes, participated in sixteen divine services and recorded seven of them, attended four choir rehearsals and a choir singer appreciation event arranged by a parish, and conducted two interviews. Already ten people from different parishes have volunteered to be interviewed.

It has been very demanding in the simple terms of time and energy, and it has been tremendously rewarding. As an insider of the community I study, access to the field has been relatively easy, but my possible positionings in relation to the participants of the study are ever so much more complex. So far, I have had no trouble in finding interviewees, but it may require more effort to have priests and cantors volunteer. I have had surprisingly few technical problems, although the very first time I went to record a service, I managed to get 2 min 46 s of it recorded, with one of my three microphones.

On the other hand, ethical issues arise in every situation. Do the people around me realize I am there as a researcher making observations even when not formally recording or interviewing? Some employees of parishes have expressed a desire to make the services I am going to record sound aesthetically as good as possible, which is quite understandable; how to deal with that? What is the best way to orally summarize the content of the written information sheet I give to participants before they sign the consent form, when they are clearly not willing to read it through? But everything changes and develops constantly, and there are new surprises there for me every day.

The research design has proved to be reasonably functional: the research material produced thus far appears relevant to the questions, and there will certainly be enough of it. However, at this stage it is impossible to say much more about it.

Having only started my fieldwork, there is much that remains to be learned. What I do already know, however, is what happens to my research material after my study. The recordings I make will be archived at the Finnish Literature Society. Although Orthodox Christianity has a long history in Finland, very few recordings of Orthodox worship have been archived permanently. Even in the so-called digital age, there is no consistent recording of services. The new audio archive collection will serve future research as a source of research material as well as document the cultural practices related to Finnish Orthodoxy.


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Cover photo: Test recording in Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox seminary church in Joensuu, October 2018. Photograph: TL
Photograph of the author: Heikki Puustinen