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This lesson provides a general overview of gospel music. In addition to offering a definition of this musical genre, it provides some historical information about it and discusses some well-known gospel artists.

Gospel Music

Have you ever heard a song that moved you to the point where you wanted to tell all of your friends about it? Well, that’s the type of feeling you may experience when listening to gospel music. By its very definition, the term gospel means ‘good news.’ Gospel music is one of the vehicles through which the ideals of Christianity have been spread to audiences all over the world.


Gospel music is deeply rooted in the rich traditions of the African-American church.

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During the late 1800s, African-American churches in the southern United States started fusing various styles of music into their worship services, including African-American spirituals, hymns, and sacred songs. Such music was primarily sung at church and accompanied by hand-clapping and foot-stomping.At the heart of the gospel music tradition was the use of a choir. The church choir consisted of a group of volunteer singers from the church congregation. Choir members could easily be distinguished from the rest of the congregation because they normally dressed in uniforms, which were choir robes.

This might be something you remember from various films like The Blues Brothers, Sister Act 2, or Norbit. The types of music sung by the gospel choir followed the call-and-response format similar to that used in traditional hymns and sacred songs.The traditional structure of gospel music changed in the late 1930s when Thomas A. Dorsey, who became known as the ‘Father of Gospel Music,’ began working for Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois.

Dorsey was a former jazz pianist and composer who had worked with famous players such as Ma Rainey and Hudson Tamp Red Whitaker. Dorsey created a new style of gospel music called gospel blues, which infused his study of blues and jazz with traditional gospel music. It was initially rejected; however, by the end of the 1930s, gospel blues won over acceptance as the new form of traditional gospel.Gospel music continued to evolve throughout the late 1930s. There are four distinct styles of gospel music including, but not limited to, quartet style, traditional gospel, contemporary gospel, and praise and worship.The gospel quartet style is one in which a small number of male vocalists sing music together with tight harmonies. The major difference between traditional and contemporary gospel styles is that while traditional gospel usually features a more basic sound suited for singing by a choir, contemporary gospel places more emphasis on solo artists.

Most contemporary artists rarely sing with a choir. Praise and worship is a combination of both contemporary and traditional gospel styles, in that a praise leader has a small group of singers to help lead the congregation into singing gospel music.


In addition to Thomas Dorsey, there are many others who contributed to the development of gospel music including James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson. James Cleveland was a member of Pilgrim Baptist Church and sang under the direction of Thomas Dorsey. Cleveland was the founder of the Gospel Music Workshop Association (GMWA), the first gospel artist to record a live gospel LP, and the first gospel artist to sell 50,000 albums.

Mahalia Jackson, also known as the ‘Queen of Gospel Music,’ was another very influential force in gospel music. Jackson’s powerful contralto-level voice was a symbol of hope and freedom during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Jackson knew Thomas Dorsey, and she mentored artists such as Aretha Franklin and Della Reese. In addition, Jackson has a famous singing scene in the film The Imitation of Life.

Other Notable Gospel Artists by Genre

Some examples of the male/quartet artists are:

  • Joe Ligon and the Mighty Clouds of Joy
  • Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s
  • The Dixie Hummingbirds
  • The Rance Allen Group
  • Robert Blair and the Fantastic Violinaires
  • The Williams Brothers
  • The Gospel Keynotes
  • The Canton Spirituals

Some examples of traditional gospel artists are:

  • Clara Ward
  • The Caravans
  • John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir
  • Mississippi Mass Choir
  • Georgia Mass Choir
  • Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers
  • Walter Hawkins
  • Andrae Crouch
  • Richard Smallwood ; Vision
  • Lady Tramaine Hawkins

Some contemporary gospel artists include:

  • Lecrae (who does gospel rap)
  • Mary Mary
  • Kirk Franklin
  • Yolanda Adams
  • Marvin Sapp
  • Commissioned
  • Take 6
  • Byron Cage
  • CeCe Winans
  • James Fortune ; FIYA
  • Donald Lawrence

And some praise and worship artists include:

  • Tasha Cobbs
  • Shana Wilson
  • J.J.

    Hairston and Youthful Praise

  • Israel Houghton ; New Breed

Lesson Summary

Gospel music not only reflects the rich culture and heritage of African-Americans, but is symbolic of the trials and triumphs of the nation. The gospel music that had once functioned as a form of worship music traditionally sung by a choir has now evolved into a separate billion-dollar media industry. Many great gospel pioneers such as Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and James Cleveland have inspired generations of artists across the gospel music spectrum. While there are many styles of gospel music, the message of hope remains a constant force that listeners continue to cherish and celebrate throughout the world.

The Four Styles of Gospel Music

Gospel singers
Gospel singers
Quartet Traditional Contemporary Praise and Worship
*A small group of male vocalists singing together with tight harmonies *Usually features a more basic sound suited for singing by a choir *Like traditional but emphasizes solo artists *Features a praise leader who has a small group of singers to help lead the congregation in singing gospel music

Learning Outcomes

A thorough exploration of this lesson on gospel music could result in your ability to:

  • Analyze the roots of gospel music and specify some of its general characteristics
  • Discuss the four styles of gospel music
  • Name some of the major contributors to the gospel musical styles

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