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Secrets of Singing Harmonies: Blocking Gospel Chords

gospel choir singingThe impact of a Gospel choir arrangement can’t be under estimated, and Gospel style arranging appears on recordings across every genre – says David Combes.

David Combes is a highly experienced backing vocalist who has worked with Beyonce, Lionel Richie and Chaka Khan. 

Over the last few weeks we’ve touched on some of the commonly used methods of adding extra voices into pop songs, and how adding backing vocals can add another dimension to your song writing and recording.

There’s one final area of pop backing vocal arranging that has been used to a great effect on many classic pop tunes: Gospel.

There are a few simple things you can do to bring this sound to your own recordings – though you may need to ask a few friends to fill the sound out!

Gospel is a Celebration

Understanding the roots of Gospel is really important to writing with a sense of Gospel style. At a very basic level Gospel music comes from the church, and more often than not it is celebratory.

Musically it is a conversation between a preacher/leader and a congregation so it characteristically features an element of ‘call and response’ where the music is passed between the soloist, or a small group, and a full choir.

That choir is usually large (expect to track up lots of voices). Although modern studio recordings are slick and tight the effect should still be, at its core, driven by celebration.

This is why on so many Pop recordings it happens halfway through a song, or later, to give a distinctly uplifting final gear change.

Sing with a Strong Voice

Apart from the call and response element, a Gospel choir part needs to be big. Single gender Gospel groups can sound amazing but a combination of male and female voices works really well for a more choral, congregational feel.

The male voices need to be confident and bold, and the female voices tend to have a section with very strong chest voices who are happy to mix and belt; Classical choirs are often more head voice dominant in the sopranos.

The chord structure tends not to be too complex. You shouldn’t need to add interesting extended chords get the feel, relying more on big, block chords. Often the final chorus will also include every section moving up an inversion.

You Raise Me Up

‘You Raise me Up’ by Josh Groban

This can be really clearly heard in ‘You Raise me Up’ by Josh Groban.

The Gospel writing kicks in over halfway through the song, at 3 minutes 15  when most pop songs would be fading out, but this Folk/Celtic influenced Classical crossover tune is just winding up for a really impressive key change. The Gospel choir ‘call and response’ section lifts it even further.

Like a Prayer

I’ve spent a little time trying to find a song that has everything in it and I think ‘Like a Prayer’ by Madonna ticks just about all the boxes.

From the very top of the number, the intro section, there is a great example of a simple choral backing vocal part, sung on ‘ooh’ by just female voices using voice leading to get a simple, angelic feel into the song.

‘Like a Prayer’ by Madonna

Once the rhythm section has kicked in, the verse section melody has a harmony above it, moving parallel to it, but only on alternate lines over the words, ‘like a little prayer’, ‘take you there’, ‘feel your power’ and ‘take you there’.

Just over halfway through the song (3 mins 20) there is a great Gospel break down section.

You’ve already heard the Gospel choir in big block chords (the clue being the lyric ‘let the choir sing’) with powerful, confident male and female voices soaring up to a full voiced F. Now you also get the celebratory call and response section, typical of Gospel, lifting the end section of the song.


My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Maria Rentifidou Maria Rentifidou - Toxic

ReNtoFa this was so much fun to watch! You obviously have a great time arranging and recording with your ukulele and that really comes through your videos (yes, I enjoyed it so much I have been watched some of your others). Vocally you are confident and secure and your sense of fun is contagious – you really use your facial expressions well. I really like that you have your own style but you might want to think about how that impacts on your singing. Although your posture is pretty good you make things quite tricky for yourself by sitting on a bed. It looks great for a bedroom video but such a soft surface makes it hard to keep a good alignment. You might also want to try increasing the energy in your articulation as you tend to slur your words together and not finish them off – which is sometimes quite nice and dreamy but at other times losing the consonants takes away the energy of the melody and dampens your ability to get any real dynamic energy into the melody.


David CombesDavid Combes has backed Beyoncé Knowles, Chaka Khan, Elton John, Annie Lennox, Lionel Richie and many more. He’s sung on several series of “The X Factor” and “Britain’s Got Talent”. His vocals have been in films such as “The Corpse Bride”, “Transformers”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Nine”, and “Pan” (end of 2015). He is also a solo performer and a tutor on the vocal faculty for The University of West London and for The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance. www.davidcombes.com


  • keith

    the closest thing to gospel in my country is The Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and that is just fine with me.

  • Fubar2

    Like A Prayer is a brilliant example. Superb production by Patrick Leonard.

  • David Combes

    Thanks Fubar2 – the production and arranging really are 1st class