Sing, Dance & Shout Through Oppression: A Gospel Music Workshop
Sing, Dance & Shout Through Oppression: A Gospel Music Workshop

Sing, Dance & Shout Through Oppression: A Gospel Music Workshop

Lead Author(s): Derrick Spiva

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Workshop on gospel music: traditional African antecedents of gospel music, religious and secular forms developed, and economic and political factors shaping gospel music.

Chapter 2 

Gospel as a "Sound Track" of Life.

Key Terms

  • Emotivist position
  • Cognitivist position
  • Sound track
  • Music therapy
  • Cantometric
  • Underscore 
  • Yoruba
  • Dahomean

The Science Behind the Inspiration

Drums and rhythm are Cornell Coley’s tools for activism. He has sculpted his Afro-Latin roots, performance training, drum circle facilitation skills and spiritual development into a full-time career that reaches people of all ages, nationalities and abilities. In this powerful, fun and creative talk he describes, demonstrates and performs to show you the magic - how his approach to drumming preps toddlers for learning, builds life skills in at-risk teens, and rewires your brain.

As with Cornell Coley's drumming, music of various genres has been used for centuries as a means of religious, social, cultural, and of course self-expression.  African rhythms, spirituals and other types of music have been and still are used in many parts of the world as a form of nonverbal communication and interaction. 

With great respect given to the spiritual implications and influences of Gospel music, generally music’s communicative impact can be observed and  is displayed quite prominently in the research and methods of science. The field of music therapy utilizes musical instruments and voice as tools to express thoughts, memory and emotions that were previously in-expressible. There is much evidence to suggest that music played an important role in African Americans ability to endure the horrors, heartbreak and harsh conditions associated with the Slavery, Jim Crew and Civil Rights eras.

StumbleUpon. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2017.​

Also, music often prompts emotion through associations to specific chord progressions. Discussing these implications may help us better understand what it means to consider music in general and gospel music specifically as providing a “sound track” of life for many capturing the memories of spiritual influence, emotions and  important  events in the human experience. 

Currently, there are two primary perspectives on music’s effect on listeners.

• The first of which suggests that music itself has inherent, unchangeable qualities that will incite in a listener a specific emotional response, as designed by the composer of a given piece. This position is known as the "emotivist position". Indeed, major and minor mode music are associated with specific emotional reactions in listeners (Krumhansl 1997).
• The second perspective known as the "cognitivist position" states that the emotion experienced by a listener is a product of emotions that the listener associates with, or recognize within the music (Krumhansl 1997).
Take a look at how patient with dementia responds to music

Alive Inside: A Story Of Music & Memory 

The modal of music therapy attempts to utilize the nonverbal and often nonthreatening nature of music to provide a safe place to express the inexpressible....The act of processing a musical experience involves looking at the material that arose (through musical expression) and directing it through carefully structured questions and observations into conscious awareness.  By walking around the experience and looking at it from all sides, the implication is that there is movement with the experience. Movement implies a process through which symptoms of psyche can come to the surface and be viewed from a therapeutic standpoint. (McClary 2007 p.155)
This may be a clue as to why many churches (including predominately black churches) appeal primarily to older people. Besides the obvious benefit of connecting with other "like minded" people in a spiritually stimulating setting, many are drawn there to hold on to memories and receive the benefits that music provides. Especially churches that have vibrant active music departments, the music tends to nurture the emotions, stimulate memory and comforts people through spiritual connection. The newly released National Congregations Study finds "Choirs are strong in black Protestant congregations, where 90 percent of regular attendees say there’s a choir at the main service. This is true of churches where Black Gospel Music is the predominate style of music used in the services. Typically in these churches gospel music comprises the majority of the service followed by the sermon and announcements.  In many of these services prayer time, communion, some announcements and even the sermon are either underscored or accentuated with music of a gospel style. 

For example, Thomas Dorsey wrote "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" after his wife Nettie died during childbirth, followed the very next day by the death of the couples newborn son.  36 years later Mahalia Jackson sang "Precious Lord" at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. Whether or not the audience knew the story behind the song, Christians of many ethnicities, traditions and denominations have found comfort in "Precious Lord."

 The most tangible transmitter of African-American spirituality, gospel music is second place in importance only to the preaching in the Black worship service, with the two combining to create the minimum conditions for meeting the expectations most people have for a Black church worship service.

Wendell Mapson asserts that "the power of African-American worship is in the music, saying that Blacks will forgive poor preaching if the worship service can be salvaged with good music".  

But why? Why is the music so important to it's audiences?

Music and Performance

Music has been shown in several studies to enhance task performance and memory.  The most notable study is commonly referred to as the "Mozart effect". Raucher et al. (1993) 
researchers made note that the reading comprehension and spatial IQ scores of school aged children increased when they were exposed to Mozart. Furthermore, the same study made note that college students tended to perform better on standardized tests of special abilities after listening to a short ten-minute excerpt of Mozart, as well. As a direct result of such findings, the concept that music can make a person more intelligent has risen to prominence as a popular interpretation and research finding . In the case of Spirituals and Gospel Music, it is reasonable to suggest that there is some correlation. Between the music and African Americans ability to endure the last few hundred years of oppression.
The "arousal and mood hypothesis" was proposed by Thompson et al. (2001) and states that musical exposure affects cognitive abilities because music causes changes in listeners levels of arousal and/or overall mood. Musical mode is traditionally associated with mood, such as with major and minor chords, and tempo with arousal (Husain et al. 2002). This provides a platform for understanding the Mozart effect whereby the music actually primes the mind in the unrelated domain of spatial-temporal learning and memory (Rausher and Shaw, 1998).
This effect, however, is not be specific to Mozart and would therefore be applicable to similar types of music according to the arousal and mood hypothesis (Schellenberg et al. 2007). This has been confirmed through the observation of the effect that African American music has had around the world. While some literature, however, contrasts these findings under similar conditions , the main question with these findings is what is the reason for this response in individuals, and does it stem from some sort of emotional component?

Schellenberg et al., (2007) found that IQ test’s benefits favoring Mozart are in fact a by product of mood and arousal generated by the music. This finding therefore reinforces that similar types of music can yield similar benefits to listeners.  These findings generalize across age groups, non-IQ cognitive tasks and cultural barriers. In contrast to the idea that similar types of music yield similar effects across different individuals, Cassidy and MacDonald (2007) theorized that this effect was dependent on the personality structure of the listener, specifically with regard to whether they were extroverted or introverted. This theory reflected the concept that the emotional experience of a given piece of music is dependent on the individual listener.

"The girls worked in the starching department used to sing spirituals to enable them to breathe standing ten hours and sticking their hands into almost boiling starch." (Bob Darden - 2004)

"Boiling?" I interrupted. "Almost. It's so hot that they have to put camphor ice on their hands before they can put them into the starch. Cold starch is better but hot starch is cheaper-and you know the bosses," she winked. "As I said before, the starchers used to sing, 'Go Down, Moses,' 'Down by the Riverside,' and God, the feeling they put in their singing. As tired as we were, those spirituals lifted up our spirits and we joined in sometimes. That was too much pleasure to have while working for his money, said the boss, and the singing was out. "But that was where the boss made his mistake. While singing we would forget our miserable lot, but after the singing was cut out, it gave us more time for thinking-thinking about our problems." -Evelyn Macon

The first European and Arab visitors found something throughout sub Saharan Africa, from the Cape Verde Islands to the Congo: the presence of music and dance everywhere. The cultures, religious beliefs, food staples, architecture, and even clothing may have varied from region to region, but there existed a commonality of music and dance. They also found that-unlike in Europe and North America-most, Africans rarely separated music and dance. The two expressive arts are, even now in much of Africa, an interrelated whole, an ongoing expression of daily life.

Perhaps the most definitive work on the subject has been done by musicologists Alan Lomax and Victor Grauer, inventors of Cantometrics.  Cantometric ratings enable trained judges to score music on the relative absence or presence of a series of pre-defined musical characteristics."  Cantometrics has been widely used to assess musical commonalities and root similarities in the music of hundreds of cultures around the world. Computers then tabulate the results according to a number of factors, including geography.

Using Cantometric, Lomax reports that "Africa, centering around the style of Equatorial Africa, is seen to be the most homogeneous song style area in the world."!"  Ultimately, Lomax declares, "The extraordinary homogeneity of African song style is the result of the almost universal use by Africans of the first of these patterns-the highly cohesive, complexly integrated song model!"

"Cantometric analysis points conclusively ... that the main traditions of Afro-American song, especially of the old-time congregational spiritual-are derived from the main African song style model.

Music, as John Roberts wryly notes is not "essential" in Christian ritual.  Impressive, inspiring, and essential to day to day life for most African cultures sometimes "many African ceremonies simply could not take place at all without the appropriate music. To give just one example, the spirits are summoned by the drums in both Yoruba and Dahomean ceremonial, each by its own special rhythms. No drums, no spirits-and no ritual."

The old adage  or quote by William Congreve– “Music Hath Charms to Soothe the Savage Beast” – in actuality, it has been forever misquoted – it’s really “…to soothe the savage breast” –but either way, there can be no denying music’s power to change moods, and particularly from a somber or angry one – to happier.
Most people intuitively know that listening to music when they are feeling down or depressed can bolster their spirits. However recent research studies have shown that music, especially certain tones can clinically reduce stress. Music can alter brainwave patterns, as can yoga, deep breathing, and meditation – and bring on what is known as the Alpha State. Alpha is described as a state of deep relaxation, where the mind is totally stress-free and more open to problem solving. Using music to relax when dwelling on a particular problem then, may not only elevate your mood, but could help you reach that “a-ha” moment and find a solution.
Music has also been shown to increase the level of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which are linked to mood. In this way music has been shown not only to make you feel good, but also, to be a great motivator. For example, during exercise, listening to music can keep you going, or get you to exercise more by helping you to ignore negative feelings of fatigue and focus on the pleasurable feelings you get from being absorbed in the music.
From Gregorian Chants to Gospel Music, there is a spiritual aspect to music that is undeniable. There is not a human culture in existence now or in antiquity that has not had music as part of religious ritual. There is even a belief that each of us has or can find his or her own “Power Song” that can help us to achieve all we want in life.
But beyond “The Search for the Lost Chord” – or the scientific rational of how or why music can change mood– music is at its most basic essence recorded emotion. When we listen to a piece of music we share the artist’s feelings on a visceral level. True, that can be sad, and who among us hasn’t put on a painful love song to share in the misery after a bad break-up a march to freedom and civil rights. But, by the same token, we can share in the elation of songs of joy and happiness, or any song or piece of music that reminds us of a particular happy time in our past.

William Congreve quote

Which statement below is a quote from William Congreve


"Music Hath Charms to Sooth the Savage Beast"


"Music Hath Charms to Sooth the Savage Breast"

Cornell Coley’s tools -2

Cornell Coley’s drumming and rhythm has been known to do what?


rewire your brain


cause confusion


cause chaos


make children anxious

Cornell Coley’s tools

Cornell Coley’s tools for activism


What was the name of the African kingdom (located in the area of the present-day country of Benin) that existed from about 1600 until 1894, when the last king, Behanzin, was defeated by the French, and the country was annexed into the French colonial empire


Which ethnic group comprise 40 million people from Southwestern and North Central Nigeria as well as Southern and Central Benin


In film production, what is the music quietly playing under dialogue or a visual scene called? It is usually done to establish a mood or theme. In a church during prayer or a sermon or a scene in the theater, sometimes incidental music is used for this purpose.


A method developed by Alan Lomax and a team of researchers for relating elements of the world's traditional vocal music (or folk songs) to features of social organization is called what?

Effect on Listeners to Music

What are the two primary perspectives on music’s effect on listeners

Recorded Emotion

According to the text, music is at its most basic essence


recorded emotion


a good sound


a good vibe


Just a pleasing sound

William Congreve quote

Which statement below is a quote from William Congreve


"Music Hath Charms to Sooth the Savage Beast"


"Music Hath Charms to Sooth the Savage Breast"

Sound Track

According to the text, gospel music is some times perceived as a of life

Effect on Listeners to Music

What are the two primary perspectives on music’s effect on listeners


McClary, R. (2007) Healing the psyche through music, myth, and ritual. Psychology of

Krumhansl, CL. (1997) An exploratory study of musical emotions and

psychophysiology. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 51, 336-353.

Rauscher, F. H., et al. (1993) Music and spatial task performance. Nature 365, 611.

Rauscher, F.H., and G.L. Shaw,(1998) Key components of the

"Mozart Effect." 23.. Perceptual and Motor Skills 86 , 835-841.

Schellenberg, E.G. et al. (2007) Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of

children and adults. Psychology of Music 35, 5- 19.