Call and response (music)

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In music, a call and response is a succession of two distinct phrases usually written in different parts of the music, where the second phrase is heard as a direct commentary on or in response to the first. It corresponds to the call-and-response pattern in human communication and is found as a basic element of musical form, such as verse-chorus form, in many traditions.


African music

In Sub-Saharan African cultures, call and response is a pervasive pattern of democratic participation—in public gatherings in the discussion of civic affairs, in religious rituals, as well as in vocal and instrumental musical expression. [1]

African-American music

Enslaved Africans brought call and response music with them to the New World and it has been transmitted over the centuries in various forms of cultural expression—in religious observance, public gatherings, sporting events, even in children's rhymes, and, most notably, in African-American music in its myriad forms and descendants. These include soul, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, funk and hip hop. Hear for example the recordings entitled "Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons" collected by Bruce Jackson on Electra Records. Call and response is widely present in parts of the Americas touched by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The tradition of call and response fosters dialogue and its legacy continues on today, as it is an important component of oral traditions. Both African-American women work songs, African American work songs, and the work song in general use the call and response format often. It can also be found in the music of the Afro west indies Caribbean populations of Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize. and many nations of the diaspora especially that of South Americas Brazil.

Cuban music (Salsa, Son, etc)

Known as Coro-pregón, it is extensively used in Cuban music and derives from African musical elements, both in the secular rumba [2] and in the African religious ceremonies (Santería). [3]

Peruvian music (Marinera, festejo, landó etc)

When enslaved African populations were brought to work in coastal agricultural areas of Peru during colonial times, they brought along their musical traditions. In Peru, those traditions mixed with Spanish popular music of the nineteenth century, as well as the indigenous music of Peru, eventually growing into what is commonly known as Afro-Peruvian music. Known as “huachihualo“, and characterized by competitive call-and-response verses, it is the defining trademark of various musical styles in Afro-Peruvian musical culture such as marinera, festejo, landó, tondero, zamacueca, and contrapunto de zapateo [4]

Colombian Music (Cumbia)

Cumbia is a dance and musical form that originated with the enslaved African population of the coastal region of Colombia in the late 17th century. The style developed in Colombia from the intermingling of three cultures. From Africa, the drum percussion, foot movements and call-and-response. It’s melodies and use of the gaita or caña de millo (cane flute) represents the Native Colombian influence, and the dress represents the Spanish influence. [5] [6]


In 1644, lining out – where one person sang a solo (a precentor) and others followed – is outlined by the Westminster Assembly for psalm singing in English churches. [7] It has influenced popular music singing styles. [7] Precenting the line was characterised by a slow, drawn-out heterophonic and often profusely ornamented melody, while a clerk or precentor (song leader) chanted the text line by line before it was sung by the congregation. Scottish Gaelic psalm-singing by precenting the line was the earliest form of congregational singing adopted by Africans in America. [8]

Folk music

Call and response is also a common structure of songs and carols originating in the middle ages, for example All In the Morning and Down In Yon Forest, both Traditional Derbyshire carols. [9]

Classical music

In Western classical music, call and response is known as antiphony. The New Grove Dictionary defines antiphony as "music in which an ensemble is divided into distinct groups, used in opposition, often spatial, and using contrasts of volume, pitch, timbre, etc." [10]

Early examples can be found in the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, one of the renowned practitioners of the Venetian polychoral style:

Giovanni Gabrieli in Ecclesiis. Listen Giovanni Gabrieli in Ecclesiis.png
Giovanni Gabrieli in Ecclesiis. Listen

Gabrieli also contributed many instrumental canzonas, composed for contrasting groups of players:

Gabrieli Canzon Septimi Toni
Gabrieli Canzon Septimi Toni Gabrieli Canzon Septimi Toni 01.png
Gabrieli Canzon Septimi Toni

Heinrich Schutz was one of the first composers to realise the expressive potential of the polychoral style in his "Little Sacred Concertos". The best known of these works is Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? a vivid setting of the narrative of the Conversion of Paul as told in Acts 9 verses 3-4: "And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"

"The musical phrase on which most of the concerto is built is sounded immediately by a pair of basses": [11]

Schutz, Saul Saul. Schutz, Saul bars 1-2.png
Schutz, Saul Saul.

This idea is "then taken up by the alto and tenor, then by the sopranos, and finally by the pair of violins as transition to the explosive tutti": [11]

Schutz, Saul, entry of two choirs. Listen Schutz, Saul.png
Schutz, Saul, entry of two choirs. Listen

"The syncopated repetitions of the name Saul are strategically planted so that, when the whole ensemble takes them up, they can be augmented into hockets resounding back and forth between the choirs, adding to the impression of an enveloping space And achieving in sound something like the effect of the surrounding light described by the Apostle." [12]

In the following century, J.S. Bach featured antiphonal exchanges in his St Matthew Passion and the motets. In his motet Komm, Jesu, komm, Bach uses eight voices deployed as two antiphonal choirs. According to John Eliot Gardiner, in this “intimate and touching” work, Bach “goes many steps beyond the manipulation of spatially separate blocks of sound” and “finds ways of weaving all eight lines into a rich contrapuntal tapestry.” [13]

Bach, Komm, Jesu komm
Bach, Komm, Jesu, komm Bach, Komm, Jesu komm.png
Bach, Komm, Jesu, komm

The development of the classical orchestra in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries exploited the dramatic potential of antiphonal exchanges between groups of instruments. An example can be found in the development section of the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41:

Mozart, Symphony 41, finale, bars 190-199
Mozart Jupiter Finale development Mozart Jupiter Finale development.png
Mozart Jupiter Finale development

Even terser are the exchanges between wind and strings in the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Here, the development culminates in a "singularly dramatic passage" [14] consisting of a "strange sequence of block harmonies": [15]

Beethoven 5 first movement development
Beethoven 5 first movement development Beethoven 5 first movement development.png
Beethoven 5 first movement development

Twentieth century works that feature antiphonal exchanges include the second movement of Bartók's Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938). One spectacular example from the 1950s is Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen for Three Orchestras (1955–1957), which culminates in a "synchronized build-up of brass 'points' in the three orchestras ... leading to a climax of chord exchanges from orchestra to orchestra". [16] When heard live, this piece creates a genuine sensation of music moving in space. "The combination of the three orchestras leads to great climaxes: long percussion solos, concertante trumpet solos, powerful brass sections, alternating and interpenetrating." [17]

Call and response is common in modern Western popular music. Cross-over rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll and rock music exhibit call-and-response characteristics, as well. The Who's song "My Generation" is an example: [18]

"My Generation" vocal melody with response. Play (help*info) My Generation vocal melody with response.PNG
"My Generation" vocal melody with response. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

Leader/chorus call and response

A single leader makes a musical statement, and then the chorus responds together. American bluesman Muddy Waters utilizes call and response in one of his signature songs, "Mannish Boy" which is almost entirely leader/chorus call and response.

CALL: Waters' vocal: "Now when I was a young boy"
RESPONSE: (Harmonica/rhythm section riff)
CALL: Waters': "At the age of 5"
RESPONSE: (Harmonica/rhythm section riff)

Another example is from Chuck Berry's "School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)".

CALL: Drop the coin right into the slot.
RESPONSE: (Guitar riff)
CALL: You gotta get something that's really hot.
RESPONSE: (Guitar riff)

A contemporary example is from Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe".

CALL: Hey, I just met you
RESPONSE: (Violins)
CALL: And this is crazy
RESPONSE: (Violins)

This technique is utilized in Jepsen's song several times. While mostly in the chorus, it can also be heard in the breakdown (approximately 2:25) between the vocals ("It's hard to look right") and distorted guitar.

Question/answer call and response

Part of the band poses a musical "question", or a phrase that feels unfinished, and another part of the band "answers" (finishes) it. In the blues, the B section often has a question-and-answer pattern (dominant-to-tonic).

An example of this is the 1960 Christmas song "Must Be Santa":

CALL: Who laughs this way, ho ho ho?
RESPONSE: Santa laughs this way, ho ho ho!

A similar question-and-answer exchange occurs in the 1942 film Casablanca between Sam (Dooley Wilson) and the band in the song "Knock On Wood":

CALL: Who's got trouble?
RESPONSE: We've got trouble!
CALL: How much trouble?
RESPONSE: Too much trouble!

See also

Related Research Articles

Blues is a music genre and musical form which was originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1860s by African-Americans from roots in African-American work songs, and spirituals. Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern, the blues scale and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. Blue notes, usually thirds, fifths or sevenths flattened in pitch are also an essential part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove.

Funk is a music genre that originated in African American communities in the mid-1960s when musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). It de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions and focuses on a strong rhythmic groove of a bassline played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a percussionist, often at slower tempos than other popular music. Like much of African-inspired music, funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments playing interlocking grooves that create a "hypnotic" and "danceable" feel. Funk uses the same richly colored extended chords found in bebop jazz, such as minor chords with added sevenths and elevenths, or dominant seventh chords with altered ninths and thirteenths.

The music of Latin America refers to music originating from Latin America, namely the Romance-speaking countries and territories of the Americas and the Caribbean south of the United States. Latin American music also incorporates African music from enslaved African people who were transported from West and Central Africa to the Americas by European settlers. As well as music from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Due to its highly syncretic nature, Latin American music encompasses a wide variety of styles, including influential genres such as cumbia, bachata, bossa nova, merengue, rumba, salsa, samba, son, and tango. During the 20th century, many styles were influenced by the music of the United States giving rise to genres such as Latin pop, rock, jazz, hip hop, and reggaeton.


An antiphon is a short chant in Christian ritual, sung as a refrain. The texts of antiphons are the Psalms. Their form was favored by St Ambrose and they feature prominently in Ambrosian chant, but they are used widely in Gregorian chant as well. They may be used during Mass, for the Introit, the Offertory or the Communion. They may also be used in the Liturgy of the Hours, typically for Lauds or Vespers.

The traditional music of Africa, given the vastness of the continent, is historically ancient, rich and diverse, with different regions and nations of Africa having many distinct musical traditions. Music in Africa is very important when it comes to religion. Songs and music are used in rituals and religious ceremonies, to pass down stories from generation to generation, as well as to sing and dance to.

In music, an ostinato[ostiˈnaːto] is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch. Well-known ostinato-based pieces include both classical compositions, such as Ravel's Boléro and the Carol of the Bells, and popular songs such as Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" (1977), Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn (1959), and The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (1997).

Music of Colombia Music and musical traditions of Colombia

The music of Colombia is an expression of Colombian culture, music genres, both traditional and modern, according with the features of each geographic region, although it is not uncommon to find different musical styles in the same region. The diversity in musical expressions found in Colombia can be seen as the result of a mixture of Amerindian, African, and European influences, as well as more modern American.

Andean music

Andean music is a group of styles of music from the Andes region in South America.

Call and response is a form of interaction between a speaker and an audience in which the speaker's statements ("calls") are punctuated by responses from the listeners. This form is also used in music, where it falls under the general category of antiphony.

A work song is a piece of music closely connected to a form of work, either sung while conducting a task or a song linked to a task which might be a connected narrative, description, or protest song.

African-American music Musical traditions of African American people

African-American music is an umbrella term covering a diverse range of music and musical genres largely developed by African Americans. Their origins are in musical forms that arose out of the historical condition of slavery that characterized the lives of African Americans prior to the American Civil War.

Black music is music created, produced, or inspired by black people, people of African descent, including African music traditions and African popular music as well as the music genres of the African diaspora, including Caribbean music, Latin music, Brazilian music and African-American music. These genres include spiritual, gospel, rumba, blues, bomba, rock and roll, rock, jazz, salsa, R&B, samba, calypso, soul, cumbia, funk, ska, reggae, dub reggae, house, Detroit techno, hip hop, pop, gqom, afrobeat, and others.

Cumbia refers to a number of musical rhythm and folk dance traditions of Latin America, generally involving musical and cultural elements from Amerindians, Africans enslaved during colonial times and Europeans. Examples include:

Mexican cumbia

Mexican cumbia is a musical subgenre of cumbia which was reinvented in Mexico.

Field holler

The field holler or field call is mostly a historical type of vocal music sung by field slaves in the United States to accompany their tasked work, to communicate usefully, or to vent feelings. It differs from the collective work song in that it was sung solo, though early observers noted that a holler, or ‘cry’, might be echoed by other workers. Though commonly associated with cotton cultivation, the field holler was also sung by levee workers, and field hands in rice and sugar plantations. Field hollers are also known as corn-field hollers, water calls, and whoops. An early description is from 1853 and the first recordings are from the 1930s. The holler is closely related to the call and response of work songs and arhoolies. The Afro-American music form ultimately influenced strands of African American music, such as the blues, rhythm and blues and negro spirituals.

Afro-Colombians Colombian people of African descent

Afro-Colombians, African-Colombians, or Afrocolombianos (Spanish), are Colombians of aggregate or fractional Sub-Saharan African descent.

Cumbia (Colombia) Folkloric genre and dance from Colombia.

Cumbia[ˈkumbja] is a folkloric genre and dance from Colombia.


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  2. Orovio, Helio 2004. Cuban music from A to Z. Revised by Sue Steward. ISBN   0-8223-3186-1 A biographical dictionary of Cuban music, artists, composers, groups and terms. Duke University, Durham NC; Tumi, Bath. p191
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