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How Sweet the Sound: the Early Origins of Gospel Music

The History of Gospel Music

How Sweet the Sound: the Early Origins of Gospel Music

The history of Gospel music is rooted in the traditions of the African-American church, and dates back to the late 1800s. In the southern United States, African-American churches began meshing different music styles with their worship services, leading to what we know today as Gospel religious music.

The use of a choir was at the heart of Gospel songs, and this new kind of religious music included elements of traditional hymns and sacred songs. In church services, rhythmic hand clapping and foot stomping often accompanied Gospel music, which was performed as a way of communicating personal and communal belief regarding African-American Christianity. It was, and is, a way for congregations to come together and celebrate their faith.


In its early days, Gospel music focused on the church’s choir, and would sometimes have accompaniment from an organ, but little else by way of instruments. The introduction of the guitar in Gospel music triggered a shift toward a more contemporary sound.

The nature of Gospel music really changed in the 1930s, when popular African-American jazz musicians introduced elements of jazz and blues. While initially this shift was met with criticism, this new kind of Gospel music, called ‘Gospel blues,’ eventually gained widespread acceptance over traditional Gospel music.

African-American composers used biblical themes alongside stories of black history to evolve this kind of religious music, as it moved north through small communities into cities and larger urban societies.

Gospel music hit its turning point in the 1960s, becoming truly mainstream when popular singer Aretha Franklin began incorporating traditional Gospel into her music, and she is now considered one of the most influential Gospel singers in history. Much of Aretha’s career revolved around Gospel songs and religious music, and in 1973 she won a Grammy Award for her rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Gospel music continues to evolve, and today there are four main branches of Gospel music: quartet, traditional, contemporary, and praise/worship.

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