There’s a deep, ancient history of songwriting ... from the hits on today’s charts, to war chants, spirituals, gospel, blues and ______ (insert historical music genre or a form of communication here).
And thus - I welcome you to today’s post - highlighting and exploring the lost songwriting art of “call and response.” I say it’s a lost art, as so few people are really aware of the art form (especially these days) - and it’s such a powerful songwriting communicator, deeply ingrained in our DNA.
Literally, regardless of genre, “call and response” is a technique rarely used in today’s songs. I really believe that implementing and installing “call and response” in your own songwriting tool kit, can instantly take everything in your doing to the next level. And if you’re really looking for a complete deep dive on the DNA of hit songwriting - you know, the stuff only the real hitmakers talk about behind closed studio doors, feel free to check out my Teachable course, Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting here!
But getting back to our post - what is this secret “call and response” you speak of - and what is the history of this tradition?
Good question! This is important so - listen up!
Simply put - “call and response” is one person (or group) performing one musical statement or rhythm, labeled the “call” - and another person (or group) delivering back a musical statement or rhythm, which is what you would label the “response.” This can also be a combination...for example, I can sing a phrase (the call) and a guitarist could then play back another statement (the response). The back and forth dialogue musically, is what you call “call and response.”
For sake of clarity - the call and response can either be the exact same musical or rhythmic statement - or it can be slightly different, or just entirely a different thing on it’s own.
In other words - I think Freddy Mercury knew what he was doing here - tapping into the powerful art form of call and response.
Let’s take a look:
(Sidebar - just watching this clip makes me yearn so badly for the good old days, but that’s another story - mostly summed up in a recent post “10 Reasons Why Music Sucks So Hard Right Now”). But I digress.
So, I think you might have a pretty good intro here of what “call and response” is all about.
But let’s take a deep look at both the history and some creative messaging through the thousands of years of musical heritage.
In essence, the music of “call and response” is two fold:
1) “Call and Response” in the caveman days was also a form of communication, tribal ceremony and celebration. We’re talking like - going to war, births, deaths, weddings, celebrations.
2) I personally believe the impact of this type of technique is embedded in our DNA. That’s right! If you’re familiar with many of my other posts, I believe there are certain reasons why - as humans - we react to certain music innately. Yes, there’s a reason why, I believe, we get instantly scared if we see a ferocious tiger - intuitively. Yes! And also, this is why biologically we react to songs one way with passion, love, and excitement and for other pieces of music - well, meh - we just don’t care about.
In other words, diving deeper on the above, I do believe there is a science, beyond just inspiration, of what lights up our brains and moves us to care about certain songs, artists, movements or genres.
In other words, it comes back to my friend and publishing mentor Steve Lindsey who said, “All great songs are war chants or fertility dances.”
On that note...let’s take a look to the past in order to create the future.
From Zulu war chants to spirituals, work songs to Marine corps drill chants to tie hits of today … call and response is a key writing technique for your songwriting tool kit.
And as I strongly believe in the concept of always increasing your songwriting vocabulary (there’s a whole post I’ve done on this here for you here) - we need to know songwriting tradition and what’s come before us in the past. That’s right - standing on the shoulders of the greats, who have come before you - learning from the greats and the masters, will ultimately buy you a house mansion. That’s right - by increasing your vocabulary and learning - you and your amazing songs may forever live in infamy. (Or alternatively you can just recycle your own tired stuff - but you know, whatever : )
So, yah, back on track - you with me?! Great - Let’s take a look at that in regards to “call and response” - and fortunately I found a pretty great video showing it’s evolution.
This is actually a pretty great video showing an evolution from traditional West African call and response up to Bruno Mars & Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.”
So, yes absolutely from Zulu War Chants to Marine Corp drills to call and response in blues music (lessons from B.B. King, where B.B. will sing a line (the “call” and the “response” is another instrument, in this video, the saxophone), or in one of my favorite clips from the Blue Brothers where James Brown is leading one of the most epic gospel performances, the concept and tradition of “call and response” is one that I highly suggest you start using within your master songwriters tool kit.
I mean, please, take a moment and needle drop those links above. What immense ENERGY FLOW is going back and forth. Tremendous!
And for me - that’s what great songs and great artists are all about. ENERGY TRANSFER. That’s it! I think you see how this is working! And this is your only job as a songwriter or artist. Transferring energy. Yes, moving molecules of sound through the air to cause and stir an emotion!
In short “call and response” is one of the key foundational bedrocks of vocal and rhythmical communication, and ultimately, also multiple other hooks and melodies to switch on the brain of those you are communicating with.
In other words - “call and response” is in us. It’s in our DNA. It’s in you. It’s in your listeners!. And now it’s time for you to put it to further use and even fuel some inspiration for your writing.
So, that being said - it’s a great time now to take a closer look at some of my favorite call and response examples.
For your listening pleasure I’ve assembled a playlist and notes below. Important note - all of these were smash hits at some point and in a handful of cases also, #1s - so yeah, note to self (um, maybe there’s just something here to this concept!)
Also, I want to note that this type of analysis, as I mentioned in the post “Songwriting Vocabulary Expander” is so crucial in your daily, continual development and growth (in my opinion) of being the best songwriter you can be.
In other words, if we weren’t looking at these songs in the context and framework and history of “call and response” songs - would this concept ever cross your mind?
And furthermore - can your next song be written in a “call and response” type of setting - and could this knowledge power your inspiration - or perhaps this knowledge can help improve a pre existing song?!
On that note, let’s take a look at some great “call and response” songs in the last decades, along with my personal observations and notes below to follow:
For your convenience you can follow along using either the Spotify or YouTube embed above - I’d choose YouTube actually - just because - why not also watch an amazing video at the same time?!
It’s key and pivotal in reviewing these songs, that you lean in and pay particular notice to the call and response technique going on within these legendary hits.
Call and Response - Used in the Verse
Call: “It might be crazy what I’m about to say”
Response: The response here is the instrumental riff in between the Pharrell’s vocal lines.
Call and Response - Used in the Chorus
Call: “Because I’m Happy…....”
Response: “Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth”
This is one of my all time favorite examples of a song bringing it ALL together. It’s no surprise this song has about a BILLION streams - just on Spotify alone!
This song is such an immense example of songcrafting - showcasing also Pharrell’s use of Melodic Rhythm throughout the entire song.
Additionally, Pharrell's use of 2nd Melody (aka “the riff”) is crucial, as well as a song that just has an instantly infectious Song Title and Concept that evokes an emotion. (Click through on each of those hyperlinked keywords to get some deep dives on previous blog posts here at meh website).
In other words these are the “magic 3” song concepts that, I 1000% believe power hit, perennial songs. And then - add some great call and response to fuel the music statement and you have a modern, massive copyright.
Call: “It's too high to get over “
Response: “(Yeah, Yeah)”
Call: “You're too low to get under
Response: “(Yeah, Yeah)”
The King of Pop (and certainly Quincy Jones) have had their fair share of massive song vocabulary underneath their hits! They use “call and response” all the time. Not to mention the punchy sax hooks dropping in there as well, as an additional response!
Call: Jon: “Turn Down for What!”
Response: Snake’s throaty hook laded melody drop (in this case, the “response” is an instrument or “the drop”)
Call:“Hi dee hi dee hi dee hi”
Response: “Hi dee hi dee hi dee hi”
In this case we have an identical response to the call, as well as blues improvisation (which is typical) in between Cab’s vocal lines in the verses. As a bonus, and because it’s one of my favorite movies of all time - check out Cab’s performance here in The Blues Brothers (yes, I know I’m referencing that movie quite a bit in this post but it’s just so excellent).
Call / Gang Vocals: “Pour Some Sugar On Me”
Response / Lead Vocal: “Ohh, in the name of love.”
One of my favorite songs anthems of all time is from Def Leppard. Let me ask you - is “Pour Some Sugar On Me” a war chant? Absolutely! And this is also what you call a stadium anthem.
What can I say - Missy is a master at call and response! One thing that’s so signature about Missy (among the many I can mention) are the shouts, hooks, noises, call outs, sound f/x, etc. she puts in between her vocal lines. It’s just another level of infectiousness going on here that makes Missy … Missy! Sometimes Missy uses vocal shout outs but sometimes they’re noises or ad libs to bring home the point of the previous line. Note to self! Call and Response in full effect.
Call: “If you don’t like…”
Response: guitar riff
Call: “The world you’re living in…”
Response: guitar riff
Dearly beloved - Prince uses call and response! All. The. Time.
And BTW I wanted to mention more and stress - the power and use of call and response in religious songs and spirituals - particularly gospel! And yes - Prince takes us to church here!
This is a great example of Prince’s vocal lines being the “call,” with his guitar parts being the “response.”
Call: “Gotta make a move to a town that’s right to me.”
Reponse: bleep bleep bleep bleep blip da bleep da bleep blip (instrumental hook)
This one’s pretty obvious! Great example.
“Gold Digger” is a classic back and forth call and response, compliments of a Ray Charles interpolation. Check it out!
As referenced in our original video about the progression and timeline of call and response - both Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson are students here. And while this may not be as much classic “call and response” and as obvious - there’s just so much back and forth between so many juicy hooks be it vocals, horn lines, bass lines, shout outs, etc.
A great call and response can also be what we call a duet!
In this classic Motown song Marvin and Tammi go back and forth trading iconic lines. I included this example as the melody here of the “call” and the amount of lines of the “response” are more than just one line or phrase. In fact, there are three lines that Marvin sings...and then Tammi delivers them back to Marvin (with different lyrics).
Such a powerful statement for a duet format - and then in the chorus, both Marvin and Tammi bring it home together. Wow.
Call: “When the pimps in the crib ma”
Response: “Drop it like it’s hot, Drop it like it’s hot”
Again, we have Pharrell coming back into the call and response party!
Call: “You down with OPP?”
Response: “Yeah you know me!”
And yes, I could go on and on and on and on!
But at this point I think you are well versed (no pun intended) in the world of call and response.
So here’s my challenge to you. Yes, Homework.
Can your next writing session be a call and response focused song creation, based on some of the examples above?
Or maybe you have an existing song that you’re stuck on?
Or do you have a song you feel you can take to the next level?!
Could the magical power of “Call and Response” literally tap into the human DNA of “lighting up our brains?!” You bet!
1) Either choose a chorus or a verse, where you’re going to use a call and response technique or theme.
2) Consider - Is this a “vocal to vocal” call and response - or is this a “vocal to musical instrument / musical riff” implementation.
3) Could this song be a gospel call and response style song transformed and updated into a new genre?
4) Can you take a lesson from Missy Elliot and have hooks, shout outs and call and responses in between your main vocal lines?
5) What about writing a duet / call and response like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough?”
6) How about modeling and looking at Cab Calloway “Minnie The Moocher” where you have a vocal anthem call and an identical response back. Also note the first video here in the post from Freddie Mercury
7) Lastly, put your “call and response” ears on for the next month. That’s right. Listen to music with those filters on and experience your favorite songs, what’s playing on the radio / getting playlisted, the music you’re hearing in the supermarket etc. Listen for the “call and response” effect (and affect) and how it’s being used. It’s everywhere!
There’s your assignment and some ideas! Please - try this on and also, get to work!
The key takeaway here is the following...YOU now have the keys to power of the “call and response” universe. You can certainly leverage what’s already baked in our DNA - and psychologically, might drive us to instantly “tune in” to a song. Why not make it be your song!
Continue studying and implementing. That’s the secret!
The doors are open. Looking forward to seeing you walk through them.
Oh, one last thing...in the words of Cab Calloway,
“Hi dee hi dee hi dee hi!!”
You know what to do...
Benjamin Groff has been a music executive for over 25 years, including holding key creative positions at BMG and EMI. In 2006, Benjamin was hired to start the 1st U.S. operations of Kobalt Music and signed much of the key roster over 10 years. Benjamin is a #1 Best Selling Amazon author of the book “How Do I Get A Record Deal? Sign Yourself!” and has also created 2 highly rated Teachable courses, “Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting” and “The DIY Release Blueprint: A 6 Week Plan to Properly Release Your Music.”
His past signings range from: Ryan Tedder, Grimes, The Lumineers, Jake Torrey, Peaches, Kelly Clarkson, Greg Kurstin, Tiesto, Savan Kotecha, OneRepublic, TOKiMONSTA, SOPHIE, Cut Copy, Adam Lambert, Ariel Rechtshaid and Big Freedia to name a few.
Currently, Benjamin owns and runs his own publishing company, Brill Building and record label / A&R resource, We Are: The Guard.