I'm working on a thesis critiquing functional theory broadly, as incarnated in the text The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis (4th ed., 2021), but with one specific gripe: homophonic voice-leading as present in Black Gospel music and related genres is not touched whatsoever.

In a nutshell, here is my intuitive understanding of the SAT 3-part homophonic syntax, based on having sung in churches and Black Gospel choirs for 7+ years and having perfect pitch:

  • Either S, A, or T can have the melody. The other two parts form a diatonic triad in any inversion (usually major/minor, sometimes diminished, rarely sus2/sus4), or occasionally a chromatically modified triad, or--rarely--a quartal voicing accomplished by moving the lower voice of a first-inversion triad down by step (bottom-to-top T-A-S: G-Bb-Eb --> F-Bb-Eb). There is usually no bass part in the choir.

  • These triads are almost exclusively in closed position; i.e. no additional chord member of the triad could fit, say, between S and A or between A and T. This means the intervals between S and A are almost always a 3rd or 4th, as are the intervals between A and T, except as part of the occasional sus2 or sus4 triad. So voicing a C triad may be done (spelled ascending bottom-to-top, T-A-S) as C-E-G, E-G-C, or G-C-E, but not C-G-E or some other open-voicing permutation.

  • The 3 upper parts move in almost exclusively oblique, parallel, or similar motion. Sections with contrary motion are not unheard of, but very rare since voicings are almost always closed. If more contrary motion were allowed with non-stagnant melodies, the distance between parts would by necessity change and voicings would be more open at some point.

  • "Overlapping" is common if any of the voices leaps by more than a chord tone, as in "Okuhle Nomusa". The voices do not (almost ever) cross, but, say, the T may leap to a note higher than the note the A was previously singing.

  • These SAT triads may combine with underlying band accompaniment to create extended sonorities, e.g. in "My Hope" (end of the chorus, see transcription below):

Vocal chords:           Em Em  D           Bm     A

Accompaniment chords:   Em           G                        A

Combined sonority:      Em     Em11  G∆9   G∆7   G13(#11)     A

Lyrics:             God you   are                my     hope  

Roman numerals:         ii             ii11      IV9      IV7     IV13(#11)         V

A    A     A

N.C.           Em         G∆7                A

A              Em13(no7)  G∆13(#11)          A

All day long

(V)            ii13(no7)  IV13(#11)          V

I intend to focus on this type of voice-leading because:

  • It is very similar in scope to the more classically familiar 4-part writing; the goal is to harmonize a melody in some form or another.

  • However, the principles are an opposite extreme: parallel motion is highly valued, since the goal is to enrich or thicken a single melody, so that interdependent voices are heard together, rather than creating counterpoint and independent voices which can readily be followed separately. Singing a cappella is rare but possible (with the addition, perhaps, of a contrapuntal bass part which is usually absent), and 3-part a cappella is used as a break from a fuller choir-and-band texture. However underlying chordal accompaniment usually comes from the band, and the bass voice is played in a pinch by a piano's left hand or, most typically, a bass guitar.

  • It may be uniquely familiar to some incoming undergrads (like me) with experience in gospel choirs.

  • It should be somewhat familiar to many incoming undergrads, because taking 2 (or 3) of the voices described above in a different genre can (I hypothesize) yield folk and pop vocal arrangements. There is just so much homophony in vocal parts out there. I can hear it.

My question is: Who has studied this? Has anyone written extensively about 3-part Black Gospel writing already, or its relatives in pop/folk? I've been searching JSTOR and Google Scholar and drawing a blank. People that I've read just say the voices move in parallel, or say things like, sometimes the chords match the accompaniment, sometimes they don't. If there is a systematic syntax already written like what I've outlined above, but with more detail, I have yet to read it. It would be so useful for me.

Thanks in advance!

Research I've looked at so far:

"Analyzing Gospel" (Shelley 2019)–thanks ttw, their discussion of choral inversion as an intensification technique in their case studies is very useful.

"Musical Style and Experience in a Brooklyn Pentecostal Church: An "Insider's" Perspective" (ML Butler 2000)–more wonderful ethnomusicological connections to be made here, and good explanations of extended chordal accompaniment, but little on the structure behind vocal parts.

"Exploring the Gospel Fusion Arrangements of The Recording Collective" (Williams 2020)–similar to Butler 2000. Gets close to what I'm going for, but lacks detail (quote from p. 40 by header is closest):

In gospel music, the melody and harmonies of the vocalists are informed by the underlying instrumental accompaniment. However, there are moments of harmonic disconnect, in which dissonances are formed between the voices and instruments. Jefferson says, “the chord progressions in the instrumental part do not necessarily have to agree with what is being sung by the choir; this creates a very dense texture and at times might produce dissonances that may sound erroneous to the listener unaccustomed to this practice” (Jefferson 2013)

Jefferson's 2013 book still focuses more on piano technique, however, and I would theorize these dissonances (usually) as extended/enriched consonances. I want details on how the dense texture is created and which rich consonances are produced.

"Making Music" (Ch. 5 from The Art of Worship, Scheer, 2006)–section on vocal harmonies–gets pretty close to what I am looking for. Its pedagogical explanation of how to write 3-part is a great start. However, this is an applied text written for worship leaders, rather than an academic text written for music theorists. And, once again, there is little about how rich consonances are created by apparent "harmonic disconnect".

"African American Gospel Piano Style In The 21st Century: A Collective Case Study" (Vester 2020)-confirms that the piano was once a doubling of choral parts which choristers could listen to in order to find their part, but now it is far different: complex, soloistic, polychordal. Little detail is offered on the particulars of these polychords (extended sonorities), simply that they are difficult for some accompanists to play (either inexperienced or more traditionally trained accompanists).

"The Whitfield Sound - Unearthing foundational elements of contemporary gospel music"-what is described as "unavailable tension" in Fig. 1 (numbered page 10) is the sort of choir-accompaniment interaction I am interested in. This provides an example of tension where it is actually quite difficult to theorize it as a single extended sonority:

Choral F (triad = F, A, C, approached and left homophonically) sung over accompaniment A13 (A, G, C#, F#, B) results in m2s between F, F# and B, C, and 7 distinct pitch-classes heard at once, verging (briefly) on avant-garde material as opposed to extended tonality. Two chords later, the combined sonority is more readily analyzable as an extended G chord: Choral Em (E, G, B) over G7(13) (G, F, B, E) reduces to just a combined G7(13).

Yet this source (unfortunately for me) does not spend much time detailing this type of relationship, and rather focuses on other aspects of Whitfield's music.

So: Any lightbulbs? i.e. any systematic treatment of homophonic choral part-writing, and its relationship with accompaniment to create extended tonality? :)

And/or: Any extra tidbits? More case studies like those I've discussed above would be helpful too!

1 Answer 1


There are probably quite a few articles in the music journals on the subject. Also, I would guess that there are some dissertations available. I found this https://online.ucpress.edu/jams/article/72/1/181/109694/Analyzing-Gospel with a short search.

As most gospel music doesn't use contrasting music lines (lacking the bass that country, Latin, and I'd guess other popular styles have), most of the stuff in Clendinning and Marvin about counterpoint is irrelevant.

  • Thanks for that paper! I was just starting to read that yesterday.
    – Sineweaver
    Jul 10, 2023 at 14:32
  • Their discussion of inversion as an intensification technique in their case studies is very useful. What I am most interested in is a detailed, systematic syntax of 3-part (vocal) homophony and its combination with (instrumental, polyphonic) accompaniment to create a richer polyphony. Case studies are great to the extent that they get at the detail of part of it. I also really appreciate the ethnomusicological connections they make. If there is one unified, systematic treatment of 3-part, though, that would be so golden.
    – Sineweaver
    Jul 10, 2023 at 15:14

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