Everything You Wanted To Know About Church Music But Were Afraid To Ask

By Michael Harriot

As we enter a new age where traditional forms of music have meshed into an indistinguishable mosaic of sound and melody, the purest forms of music have seemingly fallen to the wayside. Everything with conventional notes and instrumentation is now called “jazz.” “Rock and Roll” is now anything with a guitar riff. Any black singer belting out earnest lyrics is now classified as R&B–even if they possess neither rhythm, nor the blues. Perhaps the most tragic, but least-talked-about loss in the arena of disappearing categories is the time-honored tradition of church music.

I am not referring to gospel music. Gospel music is any form of music that refers to religion and Jesus. It has been modernized and bastardized so much that it has become almost identical to secular music. I remember watching the BET awards and commenting to my friend about the new R&B duo who had two singers that were “thick and fine as hell…” I almost had to repent when he told me it was Mary Mary. It’s not my fault. I bet there is someone right now making love to a playlist with R. Kelly’s Bump n Grind right next to Yolanda Adams’ Open My Heart. I won’t even delve into “Trap Gospel” or Gospel rap. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t believe I should have the urge to do the “Nae Nae” while the ushers raise the offering. One day Kirk Franklin will get caught up in a performance and tell the congregation to “put your hands in the motherfucking air for Jesus” and you’ll remember that I told you so.

Church music is different. Church music the traditional form of music only sang and played in churches–usually black churches. As someone who has logged more hours in church services than almost anyone on the planet (including the Pope) I offer this as a primer for all things church-music related:

The Musicians – If your church only has an organist, I won’t visit. I need a keyboard player. Church music is played by a church band, and keyboard players lead all church bands (which is why The Roots can’t play church music). Most church keyboard players can’t actually read music, but when they play, they make Beethoven look like a two-fingered, tone-deaf hack. A good church band should also have drummer. Sometimes there is also a bass and lead guitar, and my church even had a horn section, but perhaps the most necessary and unheralded part of the church band actually never sits with the band:

The tambourine player. Every church has a person in the congregation who plays the tambourine as if God is taking score. The frequency of the tambourine cymbals can actually let you know how “lit” the service is getting. If a tambourine player has a slow steady rhythm, they might be doing altar call, but if if you ever spot a tambourine being beat like it personally denied us reparations, it won’t be long before the Holy Ghost arrives. Perhaps this is the greatest tambourine performance of all time:


The Congregational Song – Perhaps the best known form of church music is the congregational song. Congregational songs are not just a form of music, they are a great indicator of many things. When I attend a church where the audience sings from hymnals, I know I’m going to be out of there in 90 minutes flat, but if they start singing a congregational song, I prepare for a long service, because I know the steps to a congregational song, which are:

  1. The Beginning – Congregational songs are passed down through history by… I don’t know… osmosis. If someone starts a congregational song and you’ve logged as many church hours as I have, you somehow just know it. They all start with a simple premise, like–Jesus is a waymaker. One day he made a way for me. I know that sounds easy and uncomplicated, but that is only the opening aria of the congregational song symphony.
  2. The Middle – This is where you find out that not only is Jesus a waymaker, he’s a heart-fixer, a truth-seeker and so much more. In fact, whomever is leading the song will definitely run out of adjectives for Jesus. Then “the spirit” will lead them to just start making stuff up. The longer they sing, the more things Jesus will become: A sickness-healer, a car-cranker, a rent-payer, a remote-control finder…. And don’t act like Jesus isn’t all these things. One day he found a remote for me.
  3. The Refrain  I think that’s right. I’m not a musical composition expert, so I don’t know exactly what a “refrain” is, but there will be a part of the song where they just repeat the same shit over and over until the Holy Ghost comes. I call that the refrain. While the congregation sings the refrain, the song leader will freestyle and ad lib:

    When I thought my soul was lost

    (He made a way!)

    When they cut my cable off…

    (He made a way!)

    When I cussed out my boss

    (He Made a way!)

    When the Jets were down by 6 points

    (He made a way!)

    And they ran for 60 yards…

    (He Made a way!)


    4.   The clapping part – The last four or five minutes of the selection is just congregational soul-clapping as if the DJ  played “Follow Me.” (If you don’t know what that means, you probably won’t understand the rest of this article.) The clapping part sometimes introduces something else unique to Church music. It will begin with a stilted pause, but soon, the song will transform into the greatest part in all of church music:

Shouting Music – Shouting music is a subset within the genre of church music. It is impossible to fully explain shouting music, but imagine if jazz quartet that also played bluegrass and polka music all became simultaneously possessed by the ghosts of all the African ancestors who just wanted to dance one more time. That’s what shouting music sounds like. If love looks like the sun rising, then the Holy Ghost sounds like shouting music.

For years anthropologists, religious scholars and behavioral psychologists have tried to answer the question: Does the Holy Ghost create shouting music, or does shouting music call the Holy Ghost? No one has ever satisfactorily answered the question, but there is a magical potion to shouting music. If you don’t clap your hands and stomp your feet when you are in the presence of some real shouting music, you are dead inside. I cannot say for sure if God is real or not, or if there is a messiah who will return to earth to save us all, but if there is–he will not descend from the sky to the sounds of trumpets.

When and if Jesus comes back, it will be to shouting music.

The Choir – The most important part of the church musical universe is the choir. As most black churches have a children’s choir, a mother’s choir, a men’s choir, etc, all future references will refer to the main choir. The one that marches in on the Pastor’s anniversary.

There is no more drama-filled world than the church choir. Every church’s choir is a struggle between forces of good and evil, old and new, saints vs. sinners. Church choirs are like a concentrated version of Game of Thrones. All choir drama comes usually comes down to one issue: Who is going to lead the song. In the world of church music, there is no higher title than leader of song, and no higher praise than “girrrl, you sang that song!”

This is because the church choir is the last remnant of real church music. It is the pinnacle of the American Sunday worship service. A good song by the choir can fill the offering plates, can make a third-rate church band look like geniuses, and can turn a mediocre Sunday sermon into a shouting-music inducing work of art. Yet, the leader of the song is not the most important factor in a choir’s success.

The Choir Director – The Choir director is the… ummm… well he or she… umm… Actually, no one is really sure what the choir director does. I know that if the choir gets into a long refrain, it is up to the choir director to count down their return to the main chorus. Aside from that, it is just a lot of pointing and arm waving that I don’t think really means anything. If all those movements from choir directors actually meant something, people in the choir would talk to each other like that all the time so people wouldn’t understand what they are saying. Directors are basically the choir’s hype man. Oh… and they remind the choir to sing. I don’t know why, but for some reason, every choir direction has to yell out “SING, CHOIR” at some point in the song, as if they forgot why they were there. And they remind the choir which way to move–left or right, although I would argue that I have never seen a choir bumping into each other because the choir director wasn’t there. Now that I think about it, choir directing is like crump dancing–they’re just doing whatever they feel like and make you believe it’s choreographed.

The Singers – There are four singers of real church music

The Church Diva – We all know who this is. She is the best singer at the church, can hit all the high notes, and everyone says she has “the anointing.” I still don’t know what “the anointing” is, but as I have previously conjectured, its roots stems from a latin word that means “can sing like a motherfucker.” Before she begins singing a song, the Church Diva will remind you that she has a sinus cold and has been a little hoarse lately… Then proceeds to perfectly belt out a song in 4 octaves, with runs, key changes and notes that Opera sopranos couldn’t hit. But God…

Sister Wilma – Even if her name is different, every church has a sister Wilma. Sister Wilma was the church Diva 30 years ago, but now she sounds like she has ben swallowing rocks and her voice is so raspy it sounds like she needs to drink some lotion. She can’t sing.

But she can saaang.

When Sister Wilma opens her mouth it’s like shining the Bat Symbol for the Holy Ghost. He’s coming. Cue the shouting music

The Pastor – Every Black pastor can sing. The National American Association of Black Preachers will not license any individual who can’t sing. They might not be able to lead a song on the choir, but at least the congregation will know what he’s singing. Even if a pastor can’t sing, they still will sing because it’s all about praise and worship, and they know Jesus don’t give a…

The Delusional Diva – Everyone has one of these people at their church, although it is not always a woman. There is always one person with an unshakable belief in their singing voice, even though they sound like that one time I stepped on my dog’s balls as I was holding him still while trying to clean his ears. They don’t have the anointing. They can’t call on the Holy Ghost. They are the source of all the choir conflict because they bring songs to the choir that the director gives to the “Church Diva” to lead.  The keyboard player never knows what key they are singing in. But they never stop trying, because they love church music, and so should you.

Don’t ever stop trying. Just remember:

Jesus is a voice fixer.
One day he fixed a voice for me.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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