Song Structure: Call and ResponseSep 04, 2021
Every song you’ve ever heard is probably littered with this concept. It brings together all the different genres, from classical, to rap, to pop, to country, to rock and everything in between. It’s imperative to understand the important song structure concept of call and response.
We’re going to dive into how call and response affects nearly every aspect of a song, starting with the big picture, and going down to line by line.
So what is call and response? It’s basically the succession of two distinct musical phrases or parts where the second is reflective or a commentary on the first. Let’s dive in a bit more.
Let’s look at the big picture. Nearly every song, from classical to pop, has an “A section” and a “B section”. In most modern music genres we’d call these the “Verses” and “Chorus”.
What is the pattern between verses and choruses?
That’s right, it alters between verse and chorus until the bridge is thrown in there (if there is one). Right?
Let’s look at some common song structures:
What do all these patterns have in common?
They all follow a pattern of altering between verses and choruses. Even when the bridge kicks in, the inevitability that is the verse and/or chorus is bound to come back.
The verse, or the A section, functions as the call.
The verses set up the story that the chorus often will comment on or respond to. In the verses you are talking about the pain of a breakup, and in the chorus you respond with how you will make it through the pain.
In the verses you talk about that really annoying co-worker. In the chorus, you tell them exactly where they can go.
While the verses tell the story, the chorus often responds with the main ideas and themes that the listener should get from the story. So the chorus operates as a response.
Beyond the lyrical call and response, the chorus is a significant musical change, often from smaller (the verses) to bigger (chorus).
The word “Chorus” actually comes from the idea of a choir, or multiple voices, so the chorus is very literally a response by multiple voices coming together.
The chorus is often a “response” in a lyrical sense, but also functions as a musical response to the verses. It operates as a musical change-up to add color to your song beyond the one “voice” represented in the verses.
Call and response is not just present in the large-scale part of the song. It’s present on a line-by-line basis.
Have you ever noticed how most lines in a verse all have a very similar-feeling melody but most lines are just slightly different? Maybe in the first line the last note goes down, and the second line is the exact same but the last note goes up. The third line might deviate a bit more, and then the last line might be the same as the first.
That’s obviously not the pattern for all 4-line verses, but most are a very similar concept. If you had a significant melodic departure in every line, the verses wouldn’t have a cohesive feel- it would just feel like a crowded room with a bunch of people speaking.
In other words, it would be a mess.
But the melodic similarities in lines within a section is what helps to bring cohesion and unity to the song. It’s what helps you recognize that two different parts of the song are two parts of the same song.
The call and response is what gives that bit of coloration to give the effect of a conversation, or two voices that are from a similar place – two voices engaged in one conversation.
Let’s look at all the different layers of call and response in the lyrics of “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls.
Let’s look at the call and response pairs under the “1” label first. Each of these form a distinct line. The response line has a very similar melody to the call line in each of these pairs.
Not only that, but these pairs function as a single thought. “‘Cause I know that you feel me somehow” answers the question “Why?” to the phrase before it: “And I’d give up forever to touch you”.
The most closely related lines throughout the song are the 2 line pairs.
Now let’s look at the pairs under the “2” label. These are call and responses of two different, but united thoughts. While the “1” pairs are basically 2 sides of the same coin, the pairs under the “2” label are similar thematic thoughts, but are still 2 distinct thoughts within the theme.
Finally, the pairs under the “3” label are simply the verse-chorus pairs.
Do you see all the different call-response pairs there are within a song?
Start Songwriting right now...
Get my free guide on 10 different ways to start writing a song!