African-American Gospel Music

Grade Levels: 6 - 12

Introduce gospel music while explaining lyrical meaning and cultural values.


  • Students will differentiate between gospel and spiritual styles without teacher assistance.
  • Students will discuss the messages (lyrics) found in gospel songs.
  • Students will identify instrumentation used in various gospel songs.


  • Recording: “Why We Sing” (words and music by Kirk Franklin, Gospocentric, Inc.)
  • Video: Gospel and Spirituals (Program #3) from the series From Jumpstreet: A Story of Black Music
  • “Mellonee Burnim on African-American Music” by Patricia Shehan Campbell, Music Educators Journal 82, no. 1 (1995): 41-48


  1. Discuss gospel music. Gospel is called “gospel” because many song texts are biblical, based on the first four books of the New Testament. Unlike the spiritual (which was born in rural cotton fields), gospel has its roots in the revival meetings of urban settings. When black people migrated to cities during the twentieth century, they found that spirituals did not fit easily into their new lifestyles. A more expressive, unique music was needed, one that did not resemble spirituals or white gospel songs.
  2. Gospel music is different from spirituals in the following ways:
    1. The music is composed (unlike folk music, which is not written down).
    2. It requires instrumental accompaniment rather than a cappella performance.
    3. It uses highly ornamented, often improvised melodies rather than a straightforward rendition of the printed notation.
    4. The text is about contemporary moral issues, not biblical stories.
    Both spirituals and gospel songs are religious and vocal in nature, but gospel incorporates jazz rhythms and blues singing into religious music. The use of drums, guitars, tambourines, triangles, piano, and/or organ is acceptable in the church music form.
  3. Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993) had tremendous influence on the gospel tradition and respect that slowly grew for the music. Among his many contributions (including the composition of more than 450 songs), he is well-known for “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which has been published in 26 languages.
  4. Modern gospel emerged during the period of Martin Luther King Jr.'s leadership and has existed side by side with historic gospel. A few of the many famous gospel singers during that time were Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, the Soul Stirrers (featuring Sam Cooke), and the Drinkard Singers (featuring Dionne Warwick). Have students bring in names and recorded examples of gospel music and gospel artists (both black and white).
  5. Play several gospel songs and point out the salient features that make them gospel.
  6. Play a gospel song and have the students focus on the lyrics/text. Ask them what they think is the song's message. Is it sacred? Why or why not? Play the song a second time to verify the answers.
  7. Play the song again and have the students write down which instruments have been used. Ask them which instrument is playing the melody and which is playing the harmony.
  8. Have students listen to, sing with, and accompany with hand claps the commercial gospel hit “Why We Sing.” Have them compare and contrast it with other gospel songs, such as those by Dorsey or the Staple Singers.

Standards Correlations

  • Standard 1

    : Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
  • Standard 6

    : Listening to, analyzing, and describing music
  • Standard 8

    : Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
  • Standard 9

    : Understanding music in relation to history and culture

Excerpted from Multicultural Perspectives in Music Education.

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Provided in partnership with NAfME

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