Gospel Song Structure

by Matt Gerrard
The ensemble setup of Gospel choirs lends itself to musical motifs.

The ensemble setup of Gospel choirs lends itself to musical motifs.

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Gospel music is considered to be one of the major building blocks of several important music styles. Many of the most respected Soul and R&B; singers of the 1960s came directly from careers in Gospel music, and many similarities can be drawn between the two. Musically, Gospel is quite a straightforward genre, with much of its appeal coming from the passion and fervor with which it is delivered, rather than virtuosic complexity.

12 Bar Verses

Though Gospel and Blues music developed side by side, rather than one before the other, a number of motifs traditionally described as Blues elements appear frequently in Gospel music. The verses generally consist of 12-bar sections in 4/4 time, with a recurring three-chord pattern, usually in I-IV-V intervals. This means that it will use the first, fourth and fifth notes from a scale, forming a melody over 12 repetitions.


"Call and Answer" is a tradition that started with work songs in the plantation days of early African-American culture. A leader sings a setup line, and the group responds with the second half. In the Gospel genre, the first line is usually sung by the minister or lead vocalist, with the choir or congregation singing the response line. Call and Answer will often appear in a verse, with a traditional melody line as a chorus, or vice versa.


Turnarounds are another musical motif generally associated with Blues music. The last few bars of a verse are used to resolve the dynamic tension created by the preceding chord changes and set up the melody for the start of the next verse. The corresponding vocal line usually consists of a "roundup" of the preceding lyrics. For instance, the song "Up Above My Head," as performed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, features verse lines that all start "Up above my head ... there's magic in the air," with the second half of the line alternating each time. The turnaround is "And I really do believe, I really do believe, there's joy somewhere."


Choruses are an accepted part of popular music, but at the time of Gospel's inception, they were not a necessary component. Work songs and Delta Blues pieces were written like poetry with a number of verses, each following an identical structure. The community-focused nature of Gospel music lends itself well to a short, repeatable section that encourages participation from the congregation. As Gospel music gradually morphed into R&B; and Soul, this became a standard component of popular music.

About the Author

Matt Gerrard began writing in 2002, initially contributing articles about college student culture to "The Gateway" magazine, many of which were republished on the now-defunct Plinth blog. Since then, Gerrard has worked as a technician for musicians, educators, chemists and engineers. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in music technology from DeMontfort University.

Photo Credits

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