What is Gospel Music?

Michael Pollick

The term "gospel music" actually encompasses a number of subgenres, from the original Negro spirituals to the most contemporary Christian "Praise and Worship" songs used in modern worship services. This genre in general deals with religious — largely Christian — themes based on sacred texts and traditions. As with rock music, gospel evolved from two separate but influential paths: Caucasian religious hymnody and African-American traditional spirituals. Today's subgenres can all be placed along the path of intersection between those two musical philosophies.

Gospel music deals with religious themes.
Gospel music deals with religious themes.

Music has always been an integral part of Christian worship since the foundation of the first churches. Much of this early Christian music was not intended for commoners to perform, however, since it was in the form of chants or musical liturgy during the Mass ceremony. When the Protestant movement gained popularity, the concept of composing hymns for congregational singing also became more accepted. When Europeans began to colonize America, many of them used these hymns during often lengthy worship services. This importation of sacred church music formed the basis of "white" gospel music, as composers used the musical styles of their times to create new hymns.

It is speculated that gospel was received its introduction to the general public through Elvis Presley.
It is speculated that gospel was received its introduction to the general public through Elvis Presley.

Meanwhile, the slave trade introduced native Africans to a foreign and often hostile land. Many of these slaves brought with them a rich tradition of spiritual songs, and they would use these songs to communicate or commiserate with others in the fields. Christian worship became a central part of the African-American community, and these spirituals formed the basis of their emotional and impassioned worship style. Negro spirituals provided a sense of comfort during times of hardship, and many of these songs were combined with secular musical genres such as the blues or ragtime to form the earliest "black" gospel music.

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Gospel music often inspires prayer.
Gospel music often inspires prayer.

The two paths collided in the South during the early 20th century. White country performers often exchanged musical ideas with their black counterparts, including the use of religious themes in secular music. White musicians were quite familiar with the harmonies and upbeat qualities of modern hymns, leading some to form vocal quartets backed by the instruments commonly found in country bands. This branch, with white singers using many of the vocal techniques of their black counterparts, became known as Southern gospel.

"Praise and worship" is a popular style of gospel music that is sung in some churches.
"Praise and worship" is a popular style of gospel music that is sung in some churches.

While white performers were enjoying success in the Southern gospel music genre, black performers were having a more difficult time finding a general audience for their music. Many black performers found it easier to break into secular musical genres such as boogie-woogie, jazz or blues. Only a handful of black performers before the 1950s succeeded in bringing their form of black gospel music to a national audience. Early rock and roll performers such as Little Richard and Ray Charles did manage to incorporate the soulful sounds of the gospel genre, but their music remained firmly in the secular realm.

Gospel music perhaps got its best introduction to the general public through the efforts of a young white singer named Elvis Presley. Presley had grown up listening to black gospel music, and had unsuccessfully auditioned for a Southern gospel quartet before finding success in the secular music world. Presley's rendition of a black spiritual called "Peace in the Valley" demonstrated that the genre could be marketed to the general listening audience. Subsequent recordings by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and many other famous singers helped to establish gospel music as commercially viable.

By the 1970s, Southern gospel music had evolved into a more polished, modern sound. With the rise of alternative churches and youth-oriented worship centers, a form of modern genre called "Praise and Worship" also became very popular. Meanwhile, a number of black musicians adapted a new style based on grittier urban sounds and a strong R&B influence. This subgenre is generally known as contemporary urban gospel music.

Gospel music evolved from Caucasian religious hymnody and African-American traditional spirituals.
Gospel music evolved from Caucasian religious hymnody and African-American traditional spirituals.

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Discussion Comments


I really liked how this article was so detailed. You obviously did a lot of research.

I am trying to do a research paper on gospel music for my AP music class, and all I kept finding was gospel music news letters, which were interesting, but not too historically in-depth.

Wisegeek to the rescue again -- thanks!


All right fellow wisegeek readers, I am on a gospel music search of epic proportions.

I want to start a gospel music radio show with the really good, authentic gospel choir music that so rarely gets played today.

So what songs would you guys recommend? I've already got the Gaither gospel music discography, so what (besides Gaither) would you all want to hear on a free gospel music radio show?


Now don't get me wrong, I love gospel music songs, especially the old-timey country gospel music, but I think that sometimes it can get a little sugary.

I understand that it is a genre unto itself, but I think that just because a song is Christian, gospel music or no, it doesn't have to be unpalatably sweet or chintzy.

That's why I love the old gospel music tracks that have just as much musical talent and cultural heritage to them as any other music produced during that time. There's no reason that a song can't be Christian-themed, yet also musically worthwhile.


In regard to the question "what is gospel music?" the answer can be found in the definition of the word Gospel. That word simply means "good news" and the good news is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world to give His life for mankind to be redeemed from sin. Therefore, regardless of the style, all gospel music will be about Christianity and all it teaches concerning our life here on earth and the life to come in eternity. That is simply what Gospel music is -- regardless of whether it is black gospel, country gospel, southern gospel or contemporary Christian music. The music should pertain to the teachings of and about Christ, our life in Christ here and our hope of eternal life with Him in heaven.

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