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What is Call and Response?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Call and response is a way of communicating. It requires at least two people, with the first person introducing an idea and the second individual finishing or repeating it. Most often, it appears in music, but it can involve regular speech or physical movements, as well. Frequently improvised, this system has a number of roles, including unifying groups, maintaining order and aiding education.

Main Types

People typically perform one of two major kinds of call and response. In the first type, a person calls out the beginning of a sentence or a musical phrase, and someone else completes it. A famous, short example is Shave and a Haircut, a 7 – note tune used in various contexts in which the leader sings “Shave and a haircut,” with a partner or group responding “Two bits!” The second category has the leader fully express the initial idea or music, and the individual that answers has to repeat it, often embellishing the rhythm, melody or harmony in the process.

Musical Categories

Very broadly, musical call and response breaks down into two categories: classical and non-classical. In the classical vein, it is associated most closely with antiphon chant or psalmody, which is linked mainly to the Christian tradition. Typically, this style has a single soloist leading, with the church choir or the congregation handling the response, which is often the chorus of the hymn. Some antiphonal music, however, especially English church music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, is polychoral, meaning that one choir introduces the call and another choir responds, sometimes with a slight overlap of phrasing. Masters of this style include Giovanni Gabrieli and Thomas Tallis, whose most famous work, Spem in alium, uses not two choirs, but five, with a total of 40 individual parts.

Non-classical call and response holds a wide range of genres, many of which derive from or have strong ties to African and African American traditions — some tribes in Africa still use it in meetings and gatherings. It is closely linked to gospel, blues and jazz in particular, but it also appears in many other styles, including Latin, country, rock ‘n’ roll and even metal. Examples in this group include Baby, It’s Cold Outside by Frank Loesser, My Generation by The Who, Guilty Conscience by Eminem and Dr. Dre, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, andOh, Happy Day, based on a hymn by Philip Doddridge and arranged by Edwin Hawkins.

Orchestration and Instrumentation

Even though call and response music frequently is connected to vocalists and choirs, it is available in many different voicing combinations. A composition might have two singers, for example, while another might use one singer and a choir. Others might use two instrumentalists — Dueling Banjos by Arthur Smith is a famous example — or a soloist and ensemble, while still others can combine vocalists, choirs, soloists and instrumental groups. Regardless of the orchestration and instrumentation, the goal of the composer and the performers is always to give the impression of a conversation, mimicking the way people naturally take turns when they talk to each other.


In many cases, particularly in gospel, blues and jazz music, when call and response involves a choir or ensemble, the leader often is able to take some improvisational liberties once he’s established the main melody. Modifications typically get more intense and complex as the music progresses to the climax of the composition. The answer remains fairly unchanged, providing a framework around which the soloist can do what he likes. The person improvising still has to fit what he’s doing into the harmonic, rhythmic and phrasing structure of the piece, however, so even though he can go with what he’s feeling in the moment, he has to use a basic knowledge of how the song goes or formal music theory in order to make everything line up and sound good.

Improvisation was extremely common in the chants and hymns of slaves during the early colonization and development of the United States. These people generally did not have the training or resources to write down their pieces in ways that would put some confinements on their performances. They would sing to communicate and give hope to each other as they worked in the fields or in other jobs, so it was very common for them not only to perform spontaneously, but also to change the words and melodies to suit their own needs and feelings.


One of the great elements of call and response is that it can be a powerful unifying tool. Those who respond learn to listen carefully to the leader, and in many cases, they gain a sense of belonging by completing or repeating the call. Sometimes, people use it as a way to get collective ideas across to others. During the American Civil Rights movement, for example, African Americans and their supporters used the system, often using old Negro spirituals such as We Will Overcome to rally together and promote the concepts of freedom, perseverance, justice and equality. Modern protestors often use it in a question format, such as “What do we want?” followed by a response of a specific demand.

This technique also can be a way to keep order or coordinate activity. The best example of this is probably the military. During physical training, for example, those in command use calls known as cadences or jodies to encourage a body rhythm, pace or pattern of movement. The rest of the group completes a desired action while performing the response. These are most common during marching or running, so they often use a pattern of four beats, but the activity ultimately decides the rhythm and length.

Some individuals also use call and response in order to teach. An educator, for example, might say, “Class, when you add two and two, you get...” and the class collectively would answer “Four!” She might use it to reinforce a positive answer already given, such as saying, “Correct, [name of student], plants make food through photosynthesis. Class, all together now, how do plants make food?” Especially with younger students, the response does not necessarily have to be verbal, such as during a classic game of Simon Says, which requires the responder to physically do whatever the caller says.

Today, experts recommend using this system as an effective educational strategy, because it encourages participation from the entire group, a testimony to its ability to unify. In the past, however, educators used it simply out of necessity. In the early and middle 20th century, for instance, many African Americans in the United States were illiterate, so teachers turned to call and response, which didn’t require the ability of students to read, to help them learn.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By KaBoom — On Sep 26, 2012

@eidetic - I can see how doing a call and response song could keep energy up while jogging or doing some other activity. After all, the article said that people sometimes do call and response while working on railroads or in fields just for this reason.

I think call and response in the form of protests songs is pretty interesting. As other people said, call and response has a lot of advantages in a large crowd. Only one or two people really need to know the words, the rest of everyone can pick it up on the response!

By eidetic — On Sep 25, 2012

This article has a lot of call and response examples. I can think of one other one though: people in the military often use call and response while they run! It seems like it would make you get out of breath faster, but I think it actually helps people keep their energy up.

By starrynight — On Sep 24, 2012

@strawCake - I think I heard that somewhere too. Call and response songs do seem like a really ingenious way to deal with illiteracy in a church setting. When you use call and response, everyone can be included, even people who can't read.

Although these days, I doubt there's as much need for this because most people are literate. I'm sure some churches still use this type of singing because of tradition though!

By strawCake — On Sep 24, 2012

I read somewhere that Scottish Protestants churches in the past also utilized music call and response because of illiteracy. The reverend or choir leader could read out the "call" and the congregation could give the "response" without having to read from a hymnal.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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