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Impact of Slavery and History of American Sacred Music

Slavery played a significant role in shaping the American music. The first Americans who arrived in the United States came from various ethnic communities. They came along with different musical traditions which they practiced in their home countries. Others carried with them musical instruments or build new ones while in the United States. For instance, the ‘banja’ which is commonly known as the banjo is an African musical instrument which is being played in the US today. Other musical instruments which have dominated the American music industry are the drums. The drums were used by the Africans who were working in the plantations to communicate amongst themselves. Today, the drums are used in performing various forms of music such as country music and the rock music. The slaves had rich musical tradition. They played their music both in the Northern and Southern cities in the US in various plantations where they worked. For instance, it is believed that the gospel and blues were first introduced in the Southern plantations. They were sung as work songs and their rhythms and musical forms resembled those of Africans. The slaves were able to coordinate their jobs by engaging in songs. Most of them passed relevant information through music. The jazz music also developed from the ‘ring shout’ which was a form of worship and prayer used by the slaves in the plantations. The ‘shout’ involved clapping, dancing, and moving in a circular form so as to reach spiritual ecstasy. The ring shout symbolized both joy and pain that the slaves underwent. Therefore, the slaves have contributed towards shaping the American music. Most of the styles of music played in the US today originated from the versions of songs that were sang by the slaves. Such songs include jazz music, country, and rock music among others.

Many musicians of the time in the US perform and play music that resembles those which were sang by the slaves. However, they have improvised the old versions to develop something new. These inventions have improved the slave’s music but still depict some styles used by the slaves in the composition of their songs. The jazz which is usually known as American classical has its roots from the slaves that settled in the US. The jazz is an enjoyable and pleasant music among the American people. It is a complex music and involves a lot of creativity. No one can tell the exact history of this style of music. However, it comprises of the musical traditions associated with the New Orleans. The riffs, syncopation and the rhythms used in this style of music are associated with some elements of African music (Parker, 2015). The jazz music has become very popular in the US. Bebop is the first style of the jazz music that has ever changed how the music is played today. The rhythm of this style of jazz consisted of drums, guitar, piano, and a string bass. These instruments were backed up by a tenor saxophone or an alto. These tools can be associated with the slaves who worked on the Southern plantations.

The jazz music has been improvised, and it gives more room for changes in texture, rhythm, and melody. Besides, it has more sounds compared to the original jazz music that originated from the African Americans. The metric organization of the jazz music uses a musical genre known as ‘call and response.’ This type of musical genre is believed to have originated from the kind of music played by the African Americans. Today, most of the jazz bands incorporate “call and response” to make their music livelier. On the other hand, the four-beat counts which are used in the jazz music today are a characteristic of the black music which was played in the 20th century. The four-beat counts also employs the percussions that were used in ragtime and the drum dance associated with Africans.

Country music is also another style of music that originated from African American music. The music uses banjo which is an instrument which was commonly used by Africans slaves (Parker, 2015). However, in most cases, the banjo is associated with the western culture despite having its roots in Africa. The gospel, the blues, and the spiritual music inspired the delivery of country music. The texture and the instrumentation of the gospel, spiritual, and the blues have been used to set the standard for the country music. This has made the country music to be popular among the Americans population.

Another type of music which originated from the slaves is the rock music. The African Americans influenced the development of rock music between the years the 1960s and the 1970s. For instance, Elvis Presley is associated with the black-feel in the way he performs and plays his music. He contributed to the development of the rock and roll music. Most of the songs which were played during this time were cover songs that belonged to black musicians (Parker, 2015). Therefore, it is evident that slavery has had a significant impact on the American music industry. The instruments and songs which were used by African slaves as a way of communication have been developed to what American music is today.

The sacred music has become an integral part of the Christian worship. It incorporates the Bible verses into its melodies and expresses the emotions and the feelings of the Christians. It also enables the church members to participate in the service. The primary functions of the sacred music have never changed over the past years. However, the way the sacred music is composed has changed significantly since 1800. The American sacred music developed from a singing practice known as ‘lining.’ The ‘lining’ was used by various denominations to enable their church members to understand the melody used in the song. During this time, musical instruments were not allowed in most of the churches. Lining or ‘lining out’ enabled different denominations that could not afford hymnals to participate in the congregation. Besides, it allowed the congregants who were not able to read to take part in the worship.

Lining out was not much effective. It took more than twenty minutes for people to line and sing a single hymn. Besides, it did not allow for the continuation of the inspiration, excitement, and enthusiasm that preachers generated when they wanted the sinners to be converted. As such, a new method of worship was proposed. The new way of worship through songs led to the development of shape-notes which comprised of harmonized versions of various melodies (Parker, 2015). The new type of song worship allowed people to express their emotions in a broader way.

The shape-notes revolutionized the sacred music (Nettl, Bruno, et al.). This kind of musical notation used various note heads that were arranged in different shapes. Such forms included ovals, diamonds, squares, and triangles. The forms were used to represent seven musical notes. The seven notes are usually shown on the musical scale, and they include: do, re, mi fa, sol, la, and si. These notes were easy to memorize. People were able to learn from the seven shape-notes on their own. Others learned in groups while others were taught by traveling teachers who were the heads of various singing schools. The tune books became very popular among Christians. People could gather and sing the whole day by using the notations provided in the shape-notes. Many churches adopted the tune books, and they later issued their hymnals based on the shape-notes.

After the sharp notes, the music that was played in the church used straightforward and pure melodies. Most of the songs were sung unaccompanied with musical instruments. These were the only music that was allowed in the church. The church music during the Middle Ages was mainly monophonic. These songs were made of single or one melodic line. The monophonic texture was later developed to a polyphonic texture. This type of sacred music had more than one melodic line. The medieval period was followed by the Renaissance period. During this time, different denominations had little control on the musical activity (Nettl, Bruno, et al.). The Kings, prominent people in the society and the Princes managed the musical industry. The number of choirs in the church grew, and more voices were added. The music that was created during this time was richer compared to the medieval period. The polyphonic texture was used instead of the homophonic texture. However, various composers shifted their songs between the homophonic and polyphonic texture. As such, the melodies that were developed became more elaborate and sophisticated than the music that was composed during the medieval period. Various factors are believed to have contributed to the change in the music texture between the medieval and the Renaissance periods. Such factors include religious reformation, a shift in the status of the composers and the invention and discovery of printing.

Musical instruments never accompanied most of the music that was composed during the middle and the Renaissance periods (Nettl, Bruno, et al.) This is because the church wanted a pure and solemn music which would not distract people. Later on, the church began to allow some musical instruments such as flutes, bells, harps, and fiddles. However, these tools were only used during special occasions and important days according to the Liturgical calendar. Music composers who traveled were allowed to use musical tools such as fiddles since they performed in courts or the street corners.

The shift in the musical activity was experienced during the Renaissance period. During this time, the sacred music was performed majorly in the church as opposed to the courts. The composers were allowed to experiment most of their songs in the courts, and this encouraged them to use musical instruments. However, the type of instruments that was used produced soft sounds. Some of the instruments that were used include shawm, cornett, and harpsichord.

The sacred music has developed over the years to become what it is today. Nowadays, the sacred music in the United States comprises of musical instruments such as guitar, keyboard, and other modern instruments. Most churches use such instruments to accompany the songs.

  • Burnim, Mellonee V., and Portia K. Maultsby. African American music: an introduction. Routledge, 2014.
  • Mark, Michael. A concise history of American music education. R&L Education, 2008.
  • Metcalf, Josephine, and Carina Spaulding. African American Culture and Society After Rodney King: Provocations and Protests, Progression and’Post-Racialism’. Routledge, 2016.
  • Nettl, Bruno, et al. Excursions in world music. Routledge, 2015.
  • Parker, Erin. Theory Paper Impact of Social Conditions on Original Gangsta Rap Music and its Influence on African American Society. Diss. Long Island University, The Brooklyn Center, 2015.

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