two guitarists trading licks on stage

Call and Response in Music

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

“Call and response” is a powerful musical element that you hear over and over in countless styles and genres of music. It’s a simple concept: At some point in a song or composition, one instrument or voice “calls” with a musical idea and a different voice or instrument then “responds” with the same idea, a variation thereof, or something completely different; then the process can repeat as many times as the performers want. It’s like a musical conversation that progresses, back and forth, in the context of a performance.

Even though the concept is simple, its applications are endless, and you can hear call and response come to life in jazz and gospel, rock and pop, rap and reggae, and just about any genre you can think of.

What is call and response?

In simplest terms, call and response happens when one musical element makes a statement and another musical element responds. This can function very much like a conversation in music. And just like in regular conversation, musical call and response can take on any mood or vibe.

  • Aggressive and cutting, like an argument both sides are trying to win.
  • Warm and affectionate, like a whispered lovers’ conversation.
  • Playful, like the banter between two friends.
  • Far-reaching and experimental, like an intellectual conversation that launches into the stratosphere.
  • Exciting and active, like the telling of a grand adventure story.
  • Dark and mournful, like the sharing of sorrowful news.

Expressing these emotions (or any others!) through call and response in music can take so many forms. Call and response can soar when it’s engaged in between:

  • A lead singer and backing vocals.
  • Two lead singers.
  • A singer and the audience, where the singer introduces a musical motif and the audience echoes it back.
  • A singer and a guitar player, where each responds to licks introduced by the other.
  • Drums and any other instrument. In jazz, this is called “trading fours,” when each instrument takes four bars to solo in reaction to the previous instrument’s statement.
  • A drummer and a percussionist.

Call and response can even happen between one singer or instrumentalist and themselves. If you’re a singer, you can “call” with a high-register phrase, leave a breath of space, and then “respond” with a low register phrase that contrasts, just as one example.

How to use call and response in your music

To create good call and response moments in your music, follow the example of good conversation and really focus on engaging with whomever you’re calling and responding with. Sometimes great call and response in music happens when two players actively try to copy what the other does, as closely as possible; other times, great music happens when a call and response are drastically different. Experimentation is key, and paying to attention to what excites your audience helps, too.

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Tons of popular songs use call and response. “Swimming Pools” by Kendrick Lamar is a great example. This track stands out because the call and response is stark, simple, and powerful; the track opens with one voice saying a few words, then another simply responds with the lone word “drank,” laying it down as the period at the end of each phrase. It’s propulsive and memorable.

Queen’s “Somebody to Love” sits on the other end of the spectrum, with the lead vocals and (essentially) a choir trading quick lines as the musical scene builds toward a sublime climax.

When you’re writing your own call and response sequences, don’t hesitate to go totally minimalist like “Swimming Pools,” or make your call and response musical phrase experiments as complex and multi-layered as you like — like Queen does in their epic.

Call and response in songwriting

When you’re writing songs, call and response can be a great way to engage your audience and keep them coming back for more. Just look at “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars.

Check out the track around 3:45 to hear how the vocals and horns are written to bounce the listeners’ attention back and forth between each other in classic call-and-response fashion. As you’re listening, also note how, while Mars’ vocal line evolves and morphs with each repetition of “Don’t believe me? Just watch!” the horn lines and hits stay the same — and those static horn parts make the variations in the vocal lines for that verse much more noticeable and exciting.

To bring that sort of funk to your own songs and improvisations, try creating a section where you build a similar dynamic: Set up some call-and-response interplay between two instruments or voices where one repeats the exact same musical idea, over and over — while, with each repetition, the other uses that repeated motif as a springboard for cool and exciting variations.

Perform call and response live

Disc Makers guide to Making A Great MasterIt’s always good to practice the desired response pattern for your call and response improvisation. Try out different phrases to get listeners hyped and how to stay on rhythm with the music. When you’re bringing call and response to a live show, there are a few important things to remember.

  • Engage the audience. We’ve all been to shows where the performer does some version of, “When I say ___, you say ____!” and there’s a good reason. It can be super fun and engaging! Find ways to pull the audience into some sort of call and response that will engage them and build the vibe you’re shooting for. Your calls and response in music can be lyrical, rhythmic (you clap a pattern and your audience claps it back), and/or melodic (you sing a melody, like Freddie Mercury used to do all the time, and the audience repeats it to you).
  • Keep the song in mind. If you’re doing call and response between members of your band, remember that in most situations, your goal is to advance the music, not outdo each other by seeing who can play faster, louder, higher, or longer. Don’t let the desire to show off eclipse your chances of putting on a great performance.
  • Read the room. Sometimes the audience is ready to eat up call and response engagement. Sometimes they want to hear more and more back and forth between your band members. And sometimes not. Pay attention to how the crowd reacts and adjust the call and response in your music accordingly.

    Learn about the history of call and response

    The Jazz History Tree traces call and response in music back to strong African influences.

    While the European musical tradition emphasizes performing patterned music written by others, the African musical tradition incorporates improvisation and the nuanced and explosive call and response, or participation, as a basis for powerful human expression.

    The article describes how, in Nigeria, storytellers sometimes call out story lines and the audience responds in kind. Call and response also figured prominently in work songs in southern American plantations; slaves kidnapped from Africa would incorporate rhythms and musical techniques from Africa to communicate and coordinate, the article describes.

    Call and response has come to be prevalent not just in forms of music that come directly from Black and African cultures, but nearly any genre you can think of. It’s not just a way of filling time or exciting your audience — it’s also a way to engage an audience, bring them into the music-making process, add an organic excitement to a performance, communicate powerfully, and just bring people together.

    Bridges, hooks, and intros

    Call and response is just one of the many momentous musical devices you can use to captivate an audience, and they can be used in various parts of your songs — from verses and bridges and choruses to extended jams and climaxes. Or, as part of your live show, you can use it for audience engagement. And if your guitarist is Steve Vai, you can just have a conversation with his guitar.

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About Philip Kinsher

Philip Kinsher is a writer, editor, and musician with a predilection for YA Sci-fi Fantasy books and rock and roll. And golf and pickleball.

1 thoughts on “Call and Response in Music

  1. Perfect timing! I just uploaded my album to Discmakers today – and track 6 is a call-and-response banger! Works great every time I perform it live and give the backing vocal part to the audience!

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