How to play gospel hymns on a keyboard

Updated March 23, 2017

Playing gospel hymns on piano or keyboard is often a matter of accompanying a solo vocalist or a large choir. One of the keys to playing gospel on the keyboard is learning to play the extended chords that characterise the gospel sound. Choosing the right voicings for those extended chords is another element of playing gospel hymns successfully on the keyboard. Learning to play extended chords and how to use them isn't a difficult process and will allow you to accompany gospel vocalists from a solo vocalist all the way up to the largest gospel choir.

Learn to build the extended chords that give gospel music its sound and help support the harmonies of the vocals intrinsic to gospel hymns. These chords are primarily seventh and ninth chords. A major triad (three-note) is built with the first, third and fifth notes of the scale that shares the same name as the chord. In C, the notes would be C-E-G, which are the first, third and fifth notes of the C major scale. By playing a C major triad and adding either the seventh note of the C major scale (B) or the ninth note (D), you create the chords that are popular in gospel. Notice that D is the second note of the C major scale. It's also the ninth note because there are only eight notes in a major scale (counting the note you start on repeated as an octave). This means you continue counting from the beginning of the scale.

Practice the common one, four, five progression popular in gospel hymn music. This means the chords built on the first, third and fifth degrees of the key you're playing in. In the key of C, these chords are C major, F major and G major. To extend these chords, add the seventh or ninth note of the key you're playing in to the chords to fill them out. For instance, if your chord progression is C-C-F-F-G-G7-C, play the second C in the progression as a C7 (seventh chord), the second F as an F9 (ninth chord), the second G as a G7, and resolve back to the C. Moving from a major triad to a ninth or seventh chord fills the accompaniment out and creates movement in the piano part. This pattern works in any key.

Double chords to support the vocals. The spiritual message of gospel hymns is front and centre of the hymn. Avoid overplaying and detracting from that message. Playing a chord with your right hand and doubling (playing) some, or all, the notes in the bass (left hand) helps support the gospel hymn harmonies and allows the lyrical message to flow through.

Play moving bass lines to create movement without overpowering the vocals. Play the notes of a chord as an arpeggio (separately as opposed to simultaneously) or the first two or three notes of the vocal line, and then move back to full chords. Focus on supporting the vocals rather than covering them up.

Things You'll Need

  • Gospel sheet music
  • Chord dictionary
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About the Author

Carl Hose is the author of the anthology "Dead Horizon" and the the zombie novella "Dead Rising." His work has appeared in "Cold Storage," "Butcher Knives and Body Counts," "Writer's Journal," and "Lighthouse Digest.". He is editor of the "Dark Light" anthology to benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities.