Square Dance Calling: Understanding Timing & Musical Phrasing

The most important and effective part of any square dance caller’s improvement is to focus on their phrasing and timing. Timing is the very cornerstone of incredible calling and the start of mastering this begins with an understanding of how these two elements of music work together.

Musical Phrase

A melodic phrase is a group of notes that not only sound well together, a good musical phrase conveys a definite melodic combination of musical notes. In other words, a phrase is a series of notes that sound complete even when played apart from the main song. Think of it as a chapter in a book. Or a short path on a trail and all of the paths make for a long trail for the hiker to travel upon. Phrases combine to create a theme that we call a composed song’s melody.

Another noteworthy thing about musical phrasing is a phrase is one idea that when combined with other phrases can create complete melodies or even rhythmically based figures. It generally takes more than one phrase to make a complete melody.

For square dance calling, a good and simple way to think of a vocally produced musical phrase is it is as short as a single word and it can be as long as the length that a singer chooses to sing a phrase in one breath of air. This is a typical unit of both musical meter and musical rhythm – both are tied to keeping in time with the beats of music in a composed melody or set of melodies, and this is what makes the enjoyment of music possible.


Musical phrases are pleasing to the ear because they resolve in the view of the listener, and since they resolve, there is closure and completion of the sounds, much like the completion of a sentence in a written body of work. They are a composition element, which is taught in music theory, to make the music more organic, natural, and attractive. Keep in mind that the goal of a musical phrase is to peak interest in the listener and their enjoyment of the music first, on an aural level, and then second, on an emotional level.

Square dancers are listeners first, so improving your phrasing is one of the best ways to polish up your calling abilities. The part of the music that callers utilize for the melodic parts of choreography – delivery (calls and patter) – is based both on the rhythm of the music and the musical notes within the song itself. All traditional hoedown music provides a basic chord progression that is repeated every 16 or 32 beats in a melody. This music contains many phrases that link together and they are repeated or retold in altered instrumental stylings of the parent melodic phrase with prominent melody instruments such as the fiddle or the guitar. Musicians perform the musical piece to create a unique song with evolving and changing sets of variation within the final structure. And that is how phrasing in a hoedown song works.

Because of this repetitive melodic phrasing in square dance hoedown music, the role of the caller is laid out by fitting his vocal phrasing to work with the beat and the musical phrases that exist in the song’s melody.

The Bass Carries The Weight…

The bass parts of songs carry the root note in a musical chord with third notes and fifth notes alternating on the 2 and 4 beats of all traditional square dance music. The bassline in a song follows the chord pattern and most patterns are usually very simple and repetitious.
A bass instrument in a hoedown is a square dance caller’s best friend. The bass being played is a fantastic guide for timing and showing what the possibilities are for great phrasing. The most basic way to call is to marry the movement of the bass with your delivery of the square dance calls that can then be in harmony with the hoedown song’s chord structure.

This can be a simple called melody that you turn into:

  1. Melodic phrasing (vocal delivery of calls) in use with the
  2. Rhythmic aspect of your patter delivery.

Start off by trying this simple exercise:

Take any hoedown song with a solid strong bass end to it and isolate the bass frequencies. Adjust the bass control by turning it up and you will more clearly hear the bassline for the hoedown song. Listen to the song enough times that you can hear the chord changes resolve, come to an end, and then the music will start to repeat. The phrasing of the musical sequence repeats itself.

Next, try to sing along in unison with the bassline note for note verbatim or as close as you can, then turn off the music halfway through the musical phrase and see if you can sing the remaining notes that finish the bass sequence of the hoedown’s melody. This is much more difficult, particularly if you are weak at this time in carrying a melody. Do this until you can at least somewhat duplicate the bass notes with “dum dum” or “Doo doo” vocal singing of the melody without the music playing at all. Practice the simple changes without hoedown musical accompaniment until you have a great feel for the music and the complete chord changes that are carried through the bass instrument.

The Element of Timing

Expanding upon this idea allows you to practice more variety in your vocal delivery by getting back to the most basic of all square dance timing, the one-beat. It is the single most important musical element that square dance callers use to achieve great timing in their delivery of square dance calls. Now practice only saying “one” with every first beat of music in the same 2/4 rhythm of hoedown music. By following the actual pitch of the musical chord with the one-beat, you can focus on being in time and also being in pitch with the music.

Use a traditional 2/4 rhythm hoedown piece, and pick a slower tempo and work on the one-beat with “dum,” “one,” and “doo.” I will use the vocal “ten bounce” on the ones a lot of the time when I do this exercise. You must strive to match the tempo with the hoedown’s beat on the one-beat and the third beat, the three-beat. But more than that. You also need to match the PITCH of the notes that the bass is carrying for the traditional hoedown song.

Related:  Improve Your Vocal Technique

Next, take this a step further and add the two and four beats by saying “one two, one two” in pitch with the bass of the song. Practice a bit.

Add another element of phrasing by expanding your delivery by switching up to “one-two-three-four” for the song and make sure that you follow the one-beat. To ensure that you do indeed follow the one-beat, start on the very first beat of the square dance music after the introduction of the song. This is usually 8 beats, although it can vary and only be 4 beats or it can be more than 8 beats, usually 16 beats, on rare occasions 12.

Delivering the Calls

This is the point where the musical phrasing really begins!

Use the beats of music and say in time as quarter notes (four notes at a time):


This will even work with a 2/4 beat song even though you are saying, “one-two-three-four.” This is because a count of four rhythmically falls in place with the one-two count in a 2/4 meter of music just as well as 4/4 timing. Practice this until you can speak/sing with the music for 12 beats. Then mentally count for 4 beats while you take a normal breath. Then repeat the ONE>TWO>THREE>FOUR  for another 12 beats. This makes a timed out musical phrase of 16 beats.

(If you cannot feel the musical phrase or the one-beat, then check into getting some help from a musician in counting music.)

Next, count the music in eighth notes. Say in time and start on the “one”:



After you feel that you have a good feel for the musical phrasing of the hoedown music, you can begin creating your own phrasing by calling in rhythm to the one-beat.

Here is a great beginning exercise that practices the reinforcement of three things:

    1. It builds a practiced habit of feeling the one-beat
    2. It reinforces calling in pitch to the music
    3. It encourages growth of musical phrasing in your delivery:

Bow  to    the    Part     nerrr

ONE>and> TWO>and> THREE>and>FOUR>and

And   the    Cor – ner     of        the   hall

Both the phrasing and the timing is dependent upon starting on the one-beat. All dancers depend on your timed delivery so that they dance in time to the music. And remember, good phrasing and timing is ear pleasing, too!

Related:  Modern Western Square Dance Calling: Timing is EVERYTHING!

Next, you can work on some timed musical phrases as  they work in square dance calling. The bolded words in the following patter call line up with the numbers above them (the beats):

ONE>  and> TWO>and>THREE>and>FOUR>and>ONE>and>TWO>and>
Grand Right and a Left around ago,                     Hand over Hand a –                  THREE>and>FOUR> and>ONE>and>TWO>and>THREE>and>FOUR>and
rouuuund    and      a      Meet that  Lady and   You   Prome nade ’round


Continue practicing for as long as it takes to easily match the rhythm in time to the beat.

Related:  How to Master Square Dance Calling

An Overview

Every delivery of every call has its own unique meter and musical phrase due to the words used and how they are grouped in the delivery. The only real way to get good phrasing is to practice hoedown square dance calling an awful lot and learn to call originally; or take existing square dance material and make it yours.

Square dance calling as an art begins at understanding basic timing and phrasing and using those principles to fit the commands into a musical phrase as the dancers execute the calls. Over time, you will develop a stronger sense of the beat and delivering as many calls as you can on the one beat as possible. Most callers combine both of these approaches to grow their abilities as a caller.

Remember, working hard on timing and phrasing of the delivery of the calls will provide the dancers with some of the best calling that they could ever dance to and make you sound great!

Shaun Werkele





Mission Statement: The purpose of this post is to create a greater visibility of the square dance activity for future dance population growth on a national and local level. The coaching information provided here serves as a source for square dance caller training, education, and perspectives on dance. Future articles will be developed to improve the programs of square dancing and how those learning to square dance call can help contribute to the preservation of both modern western square dancing and traditional square dancing and to aid in the growth of the square dance activity.



One thought on “Square Dance Calling: Understanding Timing & Musical Phrasing

  1. Pingback: Practicing Guidelines For Modern Western Square Dance Callers | Square Dance Caller Shaun Werkele August Records

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