Gospel music is unique and the moment you hear it, you can recognize it as distinct from anything else. It does not matter what instruments are used, if any at all, but the uniqueness just lives on. Dominant vocals are the strongest feature of this genre of music and the use of harmony is staggering too. Referencing straight from Christianity through word play is yet another immediate flag to watch out for. Coming to the subgenres, the style can begin to change quite a bit.
The popular subgenres include urban contemporary, contemporary, modern gospel and Southern gospel. In many of the subgenres, choirs are commonplace with reliance mostly on Hammond organ, drums, tambourines, bass guitars or pianos. Electric guitars today too have made it into mainstream gospel music.
Early gospel music is not easy to describe. Several historians have made decent attempts though. For instance, Christ Janer once said that, music easy to grasp with a soul and tuneful, relying on chorus and rudimentary harmonics with metric schemes were all characteristic.
However, historians are quick to point out that the style of the late 18th century and later differs quite a bit from what originally composed Gospel music. Fact remains that Gospel music owes its heritage to the African American oral tradition that relied on repetition as part of making lyrics and music in general. Through the repetition of words, illiterate folks could engage in prayers and learn lines from the bible. In fact, participants were encouraged to be enthusiastic in learning the lines of gospels along with the repetitions and notes. This repetitive nature is all that remains from the early style of 17th century Gospel music. Another practice that is rarely seen but still exists is the use of foot stomping and hand clapping as a form of rhythmic accompaniment. Even though guitars and tambourines are commonplace today, some churches revert back to the original style.