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In the 1600s, African-born slaves in the United States were prohibited from playing-or even possessing-musical instruments. Regardless, the plantation fields still swayed with music as Blacks sung a capella (without instruments) to the rhythms of work.
Slaveowners strove to Christianize their slaves, and many Blacks sympathized with the struggle of Jesus and found comfort in the hope of heaven. Slaves were forbidden from gathering, but conducted religious services in secret. At these meetings, informal worksongs evolved into intricate songs of redemption, struggle, and Christian faith that came to be known as "spirituals."
The multi-part harmonies of these spirituals set in motion a long tradition of Black choral music.
In the late 19th century, Harry Burleigh-a protege of Antonin Dvorak-took the musical style to new heights with choral arrangements informed by his classical training. Modern choral music takes on many different forms, and is often accompanied by the piano, percussion, and bass.