Music & Entertainment

What Is Call and Response in Music?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 7, 2019 • 5 min read

In music, call-and-response is a compositional technique that works similarly to a conversation. A “phrase” of music serves as the “call,” and is “answered” by a different phrase of music. These phrases can be either vocal, instrumental, or both.

Call-and-response has its roots in traditional African music, which largely employed a vocal version. If you think of gospel music, for example, you will immediately recognize the technique: it’s when the pastor or song leader calls out or sings a line, and the congregation or choir responds. In other styles of music, call-and-response is used as a form of experimentation, as well as a way to speak directly to the listener. In live performances, for example, some performers use call-and-response as a way to connect with their audience.

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What Does Call And Response Mean?

Call-and-response begins with a melodic “phrase.” This is a group of notes that expresses a musical idea. The phrase can be purely vocal or can be played on an instrument. It can also be a mixture of the two. For example, B.B. King was known to make the call with his voice, and answer it with his guitar. Louis Armstrong did the same thing—but with his trumpet.

Call-and-response can be an expression of a question and answer, but it can also be a statement followed by a direct response to that statement (either with an affirmation or a contrasting view).

Due to its simplicity in style and ability to carry ideas and messages to listeners, call-and-response has been used in different musical forms, from classical and rock and roll to pop and folk songs. For example, Jimmy Page’s guitar solos on Led Zeppelin songs feature many instrumental call-and-response phrases.

What Is Call and Response in African Music?

Call-and-response originated in Sub-Saharan African cultures, which used the musical form to denote democratic participation in public gatherings like religious rituals, civic gatherings, funerals, and weddings.

African slaves brought this tradition to the Americas, in the work songs heard all over plantations in the Deep South. It had a huge impact on the development of African-American music, from soul, gospel, and blues all the way to rhythm and blues, funk, and more contemporary examples like hip hop. Edwin Hawkins Singers’s gospel standard “Oh, Happy Day” (1968) is a great example of call-and-response being used to reach the listeners directly and lift their spirit.

What Is Call and Response in Cuban and Latin Music?

Call-and-response is known as “coro-pregón” and is found in many Latin musical styles, including the salsa, rumba, cha-cha-chá, and timba. In Latin music, call-and-response songs are predominantly defined by an interaction between the vocalist and the coro (chorus). It happens when the singer begins to improvise solo, without the coro, known as pregón. For its response, the coro usually has a fixed melody and lyrics.

What Is Call and Response in Folk Music?

In Western folk music, call-and-response found a home in the work songs of sailors, laborers, and the army.

Take the simple sea shanty, which helped keep workmen and laborers entertained on long months at sea. Call-and-response was used in these songs to inject a fighting spirit, be it to inspire men to complete a certain task at sea (raising the mast, for example) or to alleviate boredom and motivate sailors to keep their mind on the tasks at hand.

The tradition filtered down to the armed services through the form of a military “cadence call”: a call-and-response work song sung while running or marching, whose job is to instill teamwork, boost morale, and help troops fight fatigue. A great example is the popular song used in army practice training called “My Granny,” which goes like this:

Call: “When my granny was 91”
Response: “She did PT just for fun.”

Call: “When my granny was 92”
Response: “She did PT better than you.”

Call: “When my granny was 93”
Response: “She did PT better than me.”

The Role of Call and Response in Classical Music

In Western classical music, call-and-response is loosely known as “polychoral antiphony.” It is typically performed by two choirs that interact with each other through alternate musical phrases.

Polychoral antiphony was popular in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods. It influenced the works of composers of the Venetian school, in particular Giovanni Gabrieli, the organist at the Basilica San Marco in Venice. The basilica’s architecture meant that the distance between the opposing choir lofts produced a minor delay in sound. Since there were no conductors in those days, getting both choirs to sing the same phrase at the same time was a challenge. To get around this, composers like Gabrieli began to play around with the acoustic delay in the basilica by getting the choirs to singing successive, yet contrasting, phrases of music (an early form of call-and-response).

This technique proved so popular that other composers began to imitate it in cathedrals around Italy and Europe. Some famous examples include:

  • “St. Matthew Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1727)
  • “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” by Béla Bartók (1936)
  • “Gruppen for Three Orchestras” by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1955–1957)
  • “Les noces” by Igor Stravinsky (1923)

Seven Examples of Call and Response in Contemporary Music

Call-and-response is everywhere in popular music, from rap and pop to rock music and hip hop. There are many different types, from singer-to-singer call-and-response to lead singer-to instrument and instrument-to-instrument call-and-response.

“Dueling Banjos” by Arthur Smith (1954). This bluegrass song by Arthur Smith was a banjo instrumental featuring—you’ve guessed it—duelling banjo in an intricate, frenetic, instrumental-only call-and-response.

“My Generation” by The Who (1965). This ’60s classic took a different approach:

  • A section (call): “People try to put us down…”
  • B section: (response): “Talkin’ ‘bout my generation…”

“A Girl Like You” by Edwyn Collins (1994). This song again flips the formula on its head. Each line Collins sings is echoed back by a different instrument. First a synthesizer, then a vibraphone, then a guitar, and so on.

“Say it Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud” by James Brown (1968). This song’s call-and-response doubles as a strong political statement.

“Success” by Iggy Pop (1977). This uses call-and-response throughout the song, with Iggy singing the A section, and the chorus responding in the B section. (Wonderfully, this happens even when Iggy swears in the song.)

“School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)” by Chuck Berry (1957). Berry sings and the guitar answers:

  • Call: “Drop the coin right into the slot”
  • Response: [Guitar riff]
  • Call: “You gotta get something that’s really hot.”
  • Response: [Guirtar riff]

“Can You Hear Me?” by David Bowie (1975). A gospel-inspired call-and-response is used to wind down this soulful love song.