The Power of Spirituals

I love African American Spirituals! I have long been a proponent of singing spirituals in music class because of their educational value and historical significance.

As you probably already know, African American spirituals were (and are) mostly made up on the spot both inside and outside of the church. The themes are mostly about God, Bible stories and freedom. This site has more than 200 spirituals listed, and my collection (here) has 70+.

Easy to Learn

I have always enjoyed singing spirituals in the classroom because of how many of them are easy to learn and are rich with musical qualities. For instance, there are many songs that have four phrases, where the first three phrases have the same lyrics (often with phrase two’s melody changing slightly) and the last phrase is different. Here is a list of some of those songs (all are found on this page):

With these songs, we can immediately discuss phrases and melodic contour (i.e. “What is different about the melody in the 2nd phrase? Does it go up or down at the end?”).

Other Musical Qualities

The rhythm encourages clapping and other body percussion, which can easily be transferred to percussion instruments. Many of these songs are based on the pentatonic scale, which helps students improvise xylophone or glockenspiel parts (because notes in the pentatonic scale don’t usually “clash” with each other due to the lack of half steps). Many songs also have chord structures, which can be played with a bordun (open fifth) of the tonic chord much of the time. For example “Woke Up this Mornin’” in the key of F could be on F and C. If I were accompanying the song on the piano, I would change chords, but it definitely works to have students play the same bordun the whole way through. The sky is the limit with what you can teach: many spirituals have “mi-re-do” patterns, often at the end of the 4th phrase. Also, if you are teaching syncopation, there are so many spirituals to choose from.


The Meaning in the Spirituals

Some spirituals are rich with hidden meaning, such as:

In fact, the words, “heaven,” “Promised Land,” “Chariot,” etc. probably meant other hidden messages. (see link)

Spirituals are powerful songs with powerful messages which need to be sung in our schools all year round, not just during Black History Month!

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