Call and Response

“Call and response” is another common approach to improvisation in a wide variety of musics around the world. Call and response can work many different ways, with either the call, the response, or both being improvised. Here, we build on the skill of working with a pre-existing melody begun in the previous section, by working with pre-existing calls and improvised responses.

The very idea of call and response relies on the fact that musical phrases often feel like they group in pairs (here, the “call” and the “response”). For us to feel this connection, clearly there must be some kind of relationship between the two phrases. That will be our primary goal in this type of improvisation.

One of the most common types of connections is often called “question and answer” or “parallel period.” In this approach, the call and the response both start the same, but then they end differently. The call should feel “incomplete” in some way, often by ending on scale degrees 2/re or 7/ti (a “half cadence”), while the response should feel like it completes the thought, most often by ending on scale degree 1/do.

On the other hand, it is also possible to create a relationship among phrases by making them complementary—that is, making them do different things that seem to go together. For example, perhaps the call starts on scale degree 5/sol and makes its way down to scale degree 1/do, while the response starts on scale degree 5/sol and makes its way up to scale degree 1/do. It is harder to advise on creating complementary phrases than on question-and-answer phrases.

Activity: Improvising responses

Goal: Improvise music that has a specific relationship to the music that comes before.

Before you start: You’ll need a source of “call” melodies. These can be improvised by a friend or yourself, or selected from notated “periods” (pairs of phrases) such as this collection and performed by yourself or someone else. If selecting from notated periods, use only the first notated phrase as the “call.” You may use your voice or another instrument, as you wish.


    1. Set an intention for how your “response” will relate to the call. Will it be “parallel” or contrasting?
    2. Perform, or have someone else perform, the “call.”
    3. Perform a “response” that is roughly equal in length to the call and defined by your intention set in step 1.
    4. Evaluate: how did the two phrases sound together? If you are dissatisfied with the result, set a new intention and repeat.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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