Gospel music is music that is written to express either personal or a communal belief regarding Christian life, as well as (in terms of the varying music styles) to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music.
Like other forms of Christian music, the creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of gospel music varies according to culture and social context. Gospel music is composed and performed for many purposes, including aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, and as an entertainment product for the marketplace. However, a common theme of most gospel music is praise, worship or thanks to the Judeo-Christian God, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit.
Gospel music in general is characterized by dominant vocals (often with strong use of harmony) referencing lyrics of a religious nature, particularly Christian. Sub-genres include contemporary Gospel, urban contemporary Gospel (sometimes referred to as "Black Gospel"), Southern Gospel, and modern Gospel music (now more commonly known as praise and worship music or Contemporary Christian music). Several forms of Gospel music utilize choirs, use piano and/or Hammond organ, drums, bass guitar and, increasingly, electric guitar. In comparison with hymns, which are generally of a statelier measure, the gospel song is expected to have a refrain and often a more syncopated rhythm.
Gospel music varies in style and flavour. Scholars have argued and some believe that gospel music first came out of African-American churches in the first quarter of the 19th century. Some believe that it was sung by predominately white Southern gospel artists. This argument is based more on geography than fact. Seeing that black gospel was a form of communications between slaves while in Africa, and white gospel was originated in its European form before even making it to American soil, makes the argument valid for both sides. The sharp division between black and white America, particularly black and white churches, have kept the two apart. While those divisions have lessened slightly in the past fifty years, the two traditions are still distinct.
Some performers, such as Mahalia Jackson have limited themselves to appearing in religious contexts only, while others, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a pioneer for black mainstream gospel, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Clara Ward, have performed gospel music in secular settings, even night clubs. Other performers, such as The Jordanaires, The Blackwood Brothers, Al Green, and Solomon Burke, have also performed both secular and religious music.
Although predominantly an American phenomenon, gospel music has spread throughout the world including to Australia with choirs, such as The Elementals and Jonah & The Whalers, and festivals, such as the Australian Gospel Music Festival. Norway is home to the popular Ansgar Gospel Choir, the only true Norwegian Gospel choir. Gospel is also popular in the province of Quebec, Canada, where important gospel choirs such as the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir and Quebec Celebration Gospel Choir are famous. .