In this module: We will be exploring the common elements of gospel music.

  • Students will experience call and response.
  • Students will experience the ‘off-beat’ (‘back-beat’).
  • Students will experience unaccompanied singing (a cappella)
  • Students will use body percussion accompaniment.
  • Students will build a gospel arrangement.
  • Students will write gospel-style lyrics.
  • Students will sing partner songs.
  • Students will create a coda.

Expanded background & useful links

Gospel music expresses personal or communal beliefs, ideas or revelations regarding Christian life and values. It may be composed and performed for religious or ceremonial purposes or simply for pleasure.

Form & structure
Some common elements of gospel music are:

  • Call & response
  • Choir
  • Vocal harmony
  • Positive, celebratory lyrics (often praise, worship or thanks to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit)
  • Use of piano or Hammond organ (bass, drums and electric guitar are common these days)
  • Simple percussion (such as tambourine)

Gospel songs are often like hymns, except that they are less stately or solemn – and more syncopated.

The origins of gospel
Gospel songs can be traced to the ‘Negro Spirituals’ of the African slaves brought to the Southern States of the USA from the 1700’s to the mid-1800’s. These songs were a combination of African call & response, European melodies and bible stories (often about freedom from slavery). They used European and African harmonies.

The rise of the Revival and Pentacostal movements in the South of America in the late 19th century saw the adaptation of the Spiritual for the purposes of the ‘testifying’ of faith at prayer meetings. The elements of choirs, vocal harmonies and call & response remained, but the ‘cry for freedom’ became replaced with a ‘cry of praise’.

The spread of gospel music
Gospel easily found its way into most forms of American roots music, including Bluegrass, Country, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, a Capella and Rock ‘n’ Roll and Soul.

20th century singers and musicians such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Aretha Franklin were raised in a Pentecostal environment and gospel was their first music.

Famous gospel performers over the years have included The Carter Family, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Dixie Hummingbirds.

A cappella music
A capella music is vocal music (no instruments). It is an Italian expression meaning ‘from the chapel/choir’. It was originally church music and was sung either in unison (as in Gregorian chant) or in harmony. Modern usage of the term can refer to musical forms as diverse as gospel, barbershop, doo-wop and even modern pop/rock (Bobby McFerrin (Don’t Worry – Be Happy). Some famous exponents of unaccompanied singing include The King’s Singers, The Flying Pickets, The Nylons, Manhatten Transfer, The Persuasions, Boyz II Men. Contemporary a cappella includes vocal bands, such as Rockappella, who add vocal percussion (beatboxing) to create a pop/rock sound. This technique actually has a long tradition – going back to the Mills Brothers in the 1930s. A cappella is quite possibly one of the important ingredients of hip hop culture.

Gospel Music Association
Boston Community Choir
KUSP (Central Coast Public Radio)

See and hear gospel music here

Aretha Franklin Sings Gospel
Johnny Cash & The Carter Family – Where You There
The Blind Boys of Alabama – Down by the Riverside
Elvis Presley – How Great Thou Art
The Seekers – Gospel Medley (Live)
King’s Singers – Down To The River To Pray
Rockapella – Up on the Roof
The Idea of North – Isn’t She Lovely