There’s an important moment in many African American church services, near the end of the sermon, when it begins to “shift from speech into song,” Braxton Shelley, AM’16, a PhD candidate in the history and theory of music, writes in his dissertation. 

Depending on the preacher, this shift might be melodic or it might be rhythmic. Either way, during this moment of “tuning up,” as Shelley terms it, the accompanist and choir begin to join in, repeating a simple, compelling musical phrase—a vamp—over and over. Finally the congregation joins in too, singing and sometimes dancing.

Tuning up is not simply a strategy to make the sermon more effective, Shelley claims. As he writes in his dissertation, “Sermons in Song: Richard Smallwood, the Vamp, and the Gospel Imagination,” tuning up is “the sonic manifestation of the gospel imagination,” which provides “the formal logic for gospel performance.”

In February Shelley won the prize for Best Graduate Student Paper for “Tuning Up: Towards a Gospel Aesthetic,” at the annual meeting of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music. The paper was also awarded the Paul A. Pisk Prize for the best scholarly paper presented by a graduate student at the American Musicological Society last November. A version of the paper became chapter two of his dissertation.

Shelley is “one of a kind in so many ways,” says his adviser, Steven Rings, associate professor in Music. His dissertation takes a musicological approach—a close reading of notes, chords, harmonies, and forms—which is a first for gospel. “There is no precedent in music theory, if you can believe it,” says Rings. Musicology and music theory initially focused on European classical music, and more recently on contemporary music like the Beatles. Shelley is the first to apply this approach to understanding how gospel music works. (Shelley’s preferred “writing music” is actually Chopin piano nocturnes: “It gives me something to work against subconsciously.”)

At the same time, Rings says, Shelley’s work includes an ethnographic component; he’s interested in understanding the cultural context and how gospel is meaningful for cultural insiders. Researchers usually approach music from the viewpoint of either music theory or ethnomusicology, but “Braxton does both,” Rings says, “and at such a high level.”

Shelley began playing piano by ear at age four, had his first lesson at seven, and was performing in church by nine. As an undergraduate at Duke, he considered majoring in political science or economics. But his love for music set him on another path.

This spring Shelley will complete both his doctoral work in music and a master of Divinity—a practical degree for future ministers—in the Divinity School. Earning two graduate degrees simultaneously is unusual at UChicago, especially in just five years, says Rings: “He has just blazed through the program.”

Every Sunday Shelley plays the piano and directs the choir for the Martin Temple AME Zion Church in Woodlawn. After he finishes his MDiv he plans to become an ordained minister in addition to finding a job in academia. “There is a pervasive linkage between music and expressions of belief,” Shelley says, “from Sufi practice to the work Jewish cantors do. Even the recitation of the Koran is musical.”

The genre of gospel is broad. Rev. Richard Smallwood, whose work Shelley examines closely in his dissertation, brings classical influences to his compositions. Other artists’ gospel songs are inflected by jazz or soul, he says. But Shelley sees the vamp—the repeated musical phrase that marks the transition from sermon to song—as the genre’s defining characteristic: “To me that’s what makes music gospel. It’s a sacramental medium through which people experience God in their bodies.”

During this moment of tuning up, the preacher, musicians, and choir together facilitate a communal religious experience. “The shift to a more musical approach—whatever its specific form—calls forth a different brand of audience participation … that can only be found at the level of the collective,” Shelley writes. Music becomes “the medium of exchange between heaven and earth.”

Shelley’s analytical work on how music functions to heighten the religious experience has not diminished his own belief: “My work is not about demystification, it's about explanation. It’s not that I think music has a power to affect these ends alone,” he says.

“This music works in the ways it does because people intend. The intention to experience God affects the way you perceive or attend to music.” Despite his close reading of how vamps function, “there is an ineffable quality that you can’t pin down, you can’t explain.”

Along with his analysis, Shelley’s dissertation includes a brief excerpt from an interview with Rev. Smallwood about his own musical practice. “I have a commitment to understanding how others understand themselves to be acting,” Shelley says. “Listening to musicians talk about music, how they think about it, helps to articulate a richly detailed account of these kinds of human practices.”

At a 2015 concert to honor Rev. Smallwood at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, Shelley was invited to give a lecture. Afterward he and Rev. Smallwood did a question and answer session together. “So there’s an interest” in his academic research among the broader public, Shelley says, “and certainly a recognition that value and honor are being ascribed to gospel through this work.”

For churchgoers who attend the kind of services he describes, the central argument of his dissertation is “widely accepted in an unspoken way,” Shelley says: that’s how people in church know how to respond. His dissertation attempts to make those practices “legible in scholarly terms for people who aren’t invested in this religious tradition.”

He hopes to continue to take his insights back to the communities that are invested in it. “I have multiple publics,” he says. “The academy is one. The church is another.”

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