For the past few months, we’ve been spending some time exploring the distinct characteristics of different musical genres to see how they tick, and how they’re all connected. We began with the most popular genre of all, pop. From there, we’ve explored jazz, rock and roll, punk, funk, R&B, reggae, swing, country, and folk music.
This week we’re going to explore the characteristics of a genre that serves as the inspiration for many other genres to come after it: gospel music.
With hypnotic, driving, and impassioned lyrics and music, gospel music has been a critical part of the spiritual life of the Christian church since the late 1800s, and especially in Black churches. The musical style has its roots in both Negro spirituals and traditional church hymns from Europe. Gospel saw a sharp rise in popularity around the turn of the 20th century as Revivalists used it to stir their crowds’ emotions and recruit new converts.
Let’s dive into what makes gospel music unique.
Compared to some of the other genres we’ve explored, gospel lyrics tend to be fairly simple. This isn’t a shortcoming of the genre, and instead shows the different intent of gospel. The lyrics are simple, yes, but that is so the message is clear. And the message behind so many gospel songs is that of God’s love and forgiveness expressed through the death of Jesus.
At times the message is expressed from an experiential point of view: the lyrics use “I” and “my” to relate personal feelings. Other times there is a more community-oriented perspective, using “we” and “thou.” This community perspective comes most often in more traditional hymns.
Gospel music, and especially Black gospel music, is very rhythmic and encourages the audience to clap along to the beat of the song. Lyrics and rhythm patterns that repeat are commonly used to make memorization much easier.
One example has a song singing, “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King, Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King,” repeatedly, before finishing with “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we are going to see the King.” The repetitive rhythm is meant to be both emotional, and help the audience learn and remember the lyrics easily.
With gospel’s long history and varied subgenres, there are a number of instruments commonly used.
The tambourine is a popular hand-held instrument that is often played by a number of members of any given gospel choir. It’s lightweight, held in one hand, and easy to play, especially in a genre with such a heavy focus on rhythm. In essence, the tambourine helps keep the whole choir on the beat.
The organ, a piano-like keyboard instrument that makes music by pushing air through pipes of various lengths, is a fixture in gospel music. This is undeniable due to the fact that organs are found in churches across the world. As a popular instrument in all church music, it’s not hard to understand how it made its way into gospel!
In addition to the organ, the traditional piano is also often found in gospel music. Pianos are often used to accompany the singer in slower-paced songs, especially when it is a solo backed up by the choir.
With such a rhythm-heavy genre, it’s no surprise that the drums are an important part of the music. The drums provide that beat for the audience to clap along to. This connects gospel to other forms of music with deep connections to Africa, where drums are an important part of most musical performances.
As another part of the rhythm section, the bass guitar is also prominently found throughout gospel music. This is partly thanks to the evolution and interplay of music between gospel and the blues. Like the blues, gospel often features soulful tunes, which lend themselves to the bass guitar.
Gospel music can be performed by a variety of singers. A soloist is often used to deliver a song as an invitational at the end of church services. Duets can be used to inspire heartfelt messages and deeply held emotions. Gospel trios and quartets have become popular and have produced many classics of the genre.
But the image gospel brings to mind for most people is that of the choir. Choirs have performed gospel tunes in countless churches and concerts to inspire many audiences.
As a long-standing genre with deep historical roots, gospel has evolved over time to include a number of sub-genres and styles. The traditional, Black gospel choir is definitely a large part of the genre but hardly represents the whole thing.
There are country gospel performers, whose inspirational music can be heard on country or Christian radio. Contemporary Christian music, and Christian/gospel rock, with popular performers like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Stephen Curtis Chapman, and Petra, have helped bring the gospel message to mainstream audiences.
And all of this says nothing about the immense influence gospel music has had on other genres. There would be no rock, no soul, no blues, no jazz, and a wildly different pop scene without gospel to lead the way.
Is it long past time for you to start your musical journey? Maybe you have children who are showing an interest in learning to play an instrument? Either way, The Music Studio’s professional instruction is here to help you along your path to music!
We’ve got programs for all ages and skill levels, so if you’re just starting out, or coming back after some time away from lessons, we’ve got the perfect program for you! And now most of them are available online! Visit our website and sign up today.