I've tried several times to write vocal arragnements that are in the style of Negro Spiritual music.

Here's an example of the style I'm referring to.

Typically, I use simple SATB style arrangements, based around the triad of the chord, sitting under the melody.

However, the arrangements never seem to quite capture the sound authentically.

What are the defining characteristics that traditional Negro Spiritual vocal arrangements follow, that I should observe in order to capture the style?

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    I'll just say I think it's strange to use a white singer known as a bluegrass artist singing lead in a 2001 recording as an example of traditional Negro Spiritual.
    – blindjesse
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 3:49
  • @blindJesse Hmm, perhaps a bad example. Are you suggesting that that example is not characterised as Negro Spiritual? (I may be off in my choice of style)
    – Marty Pitt
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 4:04
  • I think of a traditional Negro spiritual more along the lines of a group like the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet - Characterized often by a call and response and a booming bass voice.
    – blindjesse
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 20:32
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    I don't have the answer you're looking for, but I will say this: depending on how the singers actually PERFORM it, it can sound like a spiritual, or it can sound like, as my choral professor called it: "a bunch of white middle-class kids standing stock still and singing the notes on a page." Meaning that composition is only half the story… the interpretation and the feel and mentality of the performers is what makes a piece. For example the example you gave doesn't strike me as a spiritual not because of the compositional style, but the performance style. It's too note-perfect and clean. Commented Oct 22, 2011 at 3:23
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    (cont'd) These performers don't have the right mentality. In most cases in a spiritual it isn't about nailing all the notes with perfect tone, it's about letting your soul out, praising God, and getting rid of the intense emotion of a difficult life. (I'm not African-American OR religious, so this mostly second-hand info from college music education. But make sure once you get the composition style the way you want it (hopefully you get some good answers), you realize it'll take a good choir willing to FEEL it in order to make it sound good. Commented Oct 22, 2011 at 3:26

2 Answers 2


First, it's entirely historically correct to call them "Negro spirituals" but it's become the accepted practice to call them "African-American spirituals" or simply "Spirituals".

I agree with other commentors who say that it's about the way that it is performed. There is only so much you can do to notate a spiritual on a piece of paper. An effective performance would include elements like a very heavy emphasis of beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time even if the piece is a capella vocals--especially if the piece is a capella vocals.

In spirit (pun intended) let me offer my opinion that, especially if you are not African-American yourself, it is important to approach the source material and the subject matter with great reverence and humility. If nothing else, just respect the fact that these anonymous folk songs are a tremendously important part of American music history, so don't patronize or belittle them.

Let me share an anecdote from my many years of singing choral music. A college choir I sang in was preparing for a concert with a guest conductor. The guest conductor was not going to work with us until the actual concert. We needed to learn one well-known published arrangement of a spiritual. So we rehearsed with a student conductor. Everybody was white, or at least not African-American. My choir and our student conductor rehearsed the piece and learned it with a very heavy emphasis on the 2 and 4, at a slow tempo, with a deep groove.

At the concert, the white director conducted it at a fast tempo with a perfectly even classical beat pattern with the heavy beat being 1, and the secondary beat being 3. Exactly the opposite of African-American music. It sounded so laughably bad that when the concert ended, we were all laughing about it, and bitterly.

  • With regards to your anecdote… been there, done that! It was amazing to all of us that he couldn't hear how wrong it sounded. Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 3:17

I pretty much feel that this song on composition alone would qualify more in gospel category than negro spirituals. Try to find an arrangement of "Hush, Somebody's calling my name". This is a very popular song used by a vast amount of choirs that really portrays the sentiment of the negro spiritual.

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