Call and Response

A mosque on the main street in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso with a speaker to broadcast the call of the Muezzin

A mosque on the main street in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso with a loudspeaker to broadcast the call of the Muezzin

More on the Typology of African music

Continuing with a typology or characteristics of Central African music Simha Arom mentions that antiphonal and responsorial structures predominate.

Another characteristic I found fascinating are litanical songs. These pieces contain short melodic cells typically no more than four to five in a given song but usually two.

What gives a song originality is the way they treat the form of the phrases or melodic cells for example ABABABACCAB or,  AAA…BBB…CCC or, a litany and then a refrain or, a through-composed passage followed by a litany.  Lomax documented this formal structure in 1968.

As in medieval church music repetition is used to focus the mind or create greater intensity of thought on some specific idea or purpose. Repetition is a universal concept crossing over many cultures.

In call and response music the response is nearly always invariable where the antecedent can change and often does melodically because to change the words means to change the melody as tones are tied to language.

This call and response form also reminds me somewhat of Gospel music where a leader intones a story through a series of verses followed periodically by a chorus that declaims a recurring melodic and, or harmonic response.

Arom says that the formal structure is isoperiodic that is “The periodic structure is dependent on an extremely strict division of time into segments of equal duration, each segment possessing its own internal organization. The periodic unit is like the basic material of the musical structure, or a kind of mould.  Periodic units … can be subdivided into two or more melodic and/or rhythmic units. (Arom, 18)

Arom goes on to describe how vocal music is accompanied by a formula that organizes the melodic instruments and percussive instruments. For example thinking in western measurements you could have a sung strophe which takes 8 bars to complete accompanied by an instrumental melodic pattern with a “periodic unit” of 4-bars repeated twice and under that a percussive pattern of 2-bars repeated 4 times. Many popular songs in western music follow this formula.

In other words, “in a sung periodic unit of a given duration, the melodic instruments will follow a repetitive formula that is half the length, and the percussion a formula that is a quarter of the length.” (Arom, 19)

Below is a schematic I created showing a common exponential (8,4,2) formula for segmenting time into segments of equal duration and thus creating an “isoperiodic” structure.

Sung strophe:


Melodic instruments:





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