A call and response is a series of two parts typically played or sung by different musicians. The second part is heard as a comment about or an answer to what the first has sung. This mimics or makes fun of how people talk back and forth with each other. Call and response use the simple musical form of a verse and then a chorus used in many cultures or traditions. These songs are typically energetic and fun to listen to.
Are there different types of Call and Response music?
Yes, there are! There are two main types of call-and-response patterns in music: leader/chorus call-and-response and question/answer call-and-response. The two are mostly similar, but they have a few key differences.
In Leader/chorus call and response music, the single leader performs the ‘call’ or starting phrase, which is a complete statement, and the chorus responds to this together. The call and response don’t need to be vocal – leader/chorus call and answers can have a vocal ‘call’ and an instrumental response, or both parts can be instrumental. Here’s an example of a Leader/Chorus call and-response song from ‘Mannish Boy’ by an American blues musician called Muddy Waters:
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)
Question/answer call and response music are a bit more balanced between the two parts of the phrase. First, part of the band or a group will sing or play a musical question – a musical question isn’t always a literal question but an unfinished phrase of music. However, vocal question/answer call and response phrases are often literal questions and answers. The other half of the band will then play the other half of the question, ‘answering’ the musical question and producing a complete phrase. This makes a very quick, snappy pace in the music. Here’s an example of how it might work:
CALL: Who’s got trouble?
RESPONSE: We’ve got trouble!
CALL: How much trouble?
RESPONSE: Too much trouble!
How has Call and Response music been used around the world?
Call and response is a device used in music from all over the world, partially due to the African diaspora, which carried musical traditions from West African cultures worldwide. However, it appears in various musical traditions because it’s a simple concept. Here are some of them:
African and African-American music
Over the generations, call and response patterns from old African music became integral to newer music made by enslaved people and later their free descendants in the USA. It’s especially obvious in gospel and blues music, but call and response have bled into many modern genres, including hip-hop and rock and roll!
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 meetings, funerals, and weddings.
Enslaved Africans brought this tradition to the Americas in the work songs heard all over plantations in the Deep South. They didn’t have any physical reminders of their old cultures, so their stories and songs were of particular importance to them, and because much of the work done by enslaved people was done in large groups, in fields and mines, work songs were very common. Call and response patterns are especially common in songs like this because they tend to be heavily rhythmic – the rhythm beats help people keep moving at the same pace for hours on end, even through back-breaking labor. It hugely impacted the development of African-American music, from the soul, gospel, and blues to rhythm and blues, funk, and more contemporary examples like hip hop. Edwin Hawkins Singers’ gospel standard “Oh, Happy Day” (1968) is a great example of call-and-response being used to reach the listeners directly and lift their spirits.
Cuban and Latin Music
Call-and-response is known as “coro-pregón” and is found in many Latin musical styles, including 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 typically has a fixed melody and lyrics.
Western 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 workers and laborers entertained for 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 minds on the tasks at hand.
The tradition filtered down to the armed services through 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 a 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.”
Call and response patterns also appear in Western classical music, although it’s given the fancier name of ‘antiphony.’. Antiphony is created by having different choirs and groups of instruments play with the call-and-response structure, and it can make a real sense of scale and awe with larger orchestras.