Music. It's a language everyone speaks. But when it comes to terminology, things can get a little ambiguous.
You may have heard people use the term 'refrain' when talking about musical form . But what is a refrain exactly?
Let's dive in.
What Is A Refrain?
In a nutshell, the term refrain refers to a repeated line of music and/or lyrical content.
It's a phrase, or phrases, that tie in with the emotional message of the song. It will have a distinct, memorable lyric and melody.
This recurring line, or lines, will happen multiple times within the piece to create a sense of cohesion with the main idea of the story being told. Whether you're listening to an opera, folk music, or a Beatles song, there'll be a refrain in there somewhere.
The word itself has had slightly different interpretations over time. We'll look at the history a little later on, but for now we'll focus on its relevance to pop music.
Why Are Refrains Important?
Name any classic hit and the first thing you'll think of will almost certainly be the refrain (unless it's a Nickelback song).
Stop a rando in the street and ask them to sing any part of 'Hey Jude' and they'll either sing the first line of each A section (Hey Jude...), or if they're feeling ballsy they'll opt for the 'naaa na na na-na-na-naaaa' section played as the song ends.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney knew the importance of a using a repeated line as a refrain.
Having at least one refrain line in your song is crucial to helping the song be memorable to your audience.
No matter how catchy the song is overall, if there isn't a hook to latch on to it'll be difficult to remember. And that's why the repeating line of a refrain in music will have both a catchy melody and lyrics that an audience can easily sing along to.
But refrains go beyond just making a song catchy. They add important things to the song like:
- structural cohesion
- emotional impact
- narrative and storytelling
Is A Refrain The Same As A Chorus?
Well, yes. But sometimes, no.
Take my cat's current favorite tune, ' Yellow Submarine' . The song's chorus repeats numerous times throughout the song and consists of the same lyric and music each time. Thus, it is a refrain.
The same thing goes for Rihanna's bopper 'We Found Love'. Same music and lyrics over, and over, and over again. It never fails to excite. Or at least excite drunk people.
Take a quick gander over the lyrics for 'Hotel California'. It's a classic verse-chorus song, but the lyrics in the chorus differ slightly with each repetition. So here, the chorus isn't a refrain. But the first line of the chorus is - ' Welcome to the Hotel California...'.
The takeaway: not all choruses are refrains, and not all refrains are choruses.
What's The Difference Between A Refrain And A Chorus?
In order to understand this, let's take a quick look at basic song structure.
In verse-chorus structure the music will follow a distinct ABAB pattern, where A is the verse, and B is the chorus.
In this form the different verses will have varying lyrical ideas, while the chorus will be (more or less) identical each time.
There may be other sections, like a pre chorus (which ultimately is part of the A section), or a bridge, which doesn't repeat, and has it's very own letter.
Most popular songs use this structure in some way.
In this form you'll have a main section (A), repeated, then followed by a musically different section that introduces a new lyrical idea (B), before returning to the A section.
Jazz music uses a lot of AABA format, and sometimes very last A section is referred to as the 'shout chorus'. This final hurrah is typically played with gusto; lots of energy, high notes and accents.
As in verse-chorus form, there may be other sections in addition to these, but this is the backbone of the structure.
This song form is less widely used nowadays, but you'll still find examples of it scattered along the highway of rock and roll history. You can hear it in Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin' - it's a solid AABA format.
Refrain Vs Chorus
A chorus is a discrete form within a piece of music. As we've seen above, the chorus of the song can function as a refrain, but that isn't always the case.
A refrain on the other hand is a small musical and lyrical idea that can occur anywhere in the song structure.
Take a listen again to that Journey song (you know you want to). You have the 'midnight train going anywhere' refrain at the beginning. Then, right at the end of the song the all-important 'Don't stop believing' refrain.
A refrain can also be snuck in as the verse ends, as you can hear in the Beatles' classic 'Let It Be'.
...Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
What If There Is No Chorus?
If you write a song with an AABA structure, you won't have a chorus. But you should still have a refrain.
Take The Police's hit 'Every Breath You Take' . The basic form is AABA (the full form is A-A-B-A-C-B-A-A'). There's no chorus. But there is a refrain line at the end of each A; 'I'll be watching you' .
And this is a great example of a refrain: a single line of identical text and music that refers to the song's central theme.
It can be part of the chorus. It can be sung at the end of each verse. It can be repeated between sections. The key thing is that it doesn't have to be a whole section of a song.
In fact some musicologists would argue that a refrain should never be an entire section, but we'll leave the pointy heads to that debate and soldier on.
More Example Refrains In Songs
It's always easier to show than tell, so here's some more classic tunes and their corresponding refrain lines.
Bob Dylan - Blowing In The Wind
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
U2 - With Or Without You
- I can't live with or without you
- And you give yourself away
Bobby McFerin - Don't Worry Be Happy
- Don't worry, be happy
Adele - Rolling In The Deep
The killer chorus in this tune starts with a strong refrain:
- We could have had it all
Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars - Uptown Funk
There's a ton of refrains in this one:
- I'm too hot (hot damn)
- Girl hit you hallelujah (ooh)
- Don't believe me just watch
- Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up
This is a great example of using multiple refrains in music successfully.
How To Use A Refrain In Your Music
Now you know what a refrain in music is, how do you go about using it in your songwriting?
Know your song structure
If you know you're writing an AABA song you'll want to put your refrain at the top or tail of each A.
On the other hand if you have a verse-chorus song you might want the refrain to be sung as the verse ends to lead the listener into the chorus.
Make It Count
Be sure that your refrain works in the emotional context of your song, both musically and lyrically.
Create contrast between the refrain and chorus
If you want your refrain to be as catchy as your chorus consider how you can make them different rhythmically, musically, and through the use of dynamics.
Use Your Refrains Wisely
Having a killer refrain is great. Overusing it is not. Find the sweet spot of balance between repetition and variety to keep your audience wanting more.
History Of The Refrain
The term 'refrain' originates from the Popular Latin word 'refringere', and later on the Old French word 'refraindre'. Both of these olde words mean the same thing: 'to repeat'.
In the past the word refrain was used to indicate a line of music or poetry that was repeated, usually at the end of a phrase. Dylan Thomas nailed it in his poem 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night':
In the early part of the 20th century Tin Pan Alley was churning out songs on the daily. The ubiquitous song structure back then consisted of a 'verse intro' followed by a 32 bar section in AABA structure. This second formal section was often referred to as the refrain, since it contained the the meat and potatoes of the song.
Classic songs like 'I Got Rhythm' and 'My Funny Valentine' follow this structure, but the verse intro is generally ommitted in recordings because, well, folks just want to get to the good stuff.
But when noisy guitars (and Nickelback) were invented the term refrain began to take on a different meaning, and is rarely used when talking about structure. The most heavily used song form since the 1950s is the typical verse-chorus structure you'll find just about everywhere today.
Using the terms refrain, verses, and choruses, etc, is all well and good. But ultimately it's important to remember that these are all just concepts to help talk about music. There's no hard and fast rules.
You may find some folks use the term chorus and refrain interchangeably. Others may refer to the chorus of a song when they mean the B section of an AABA song. This isn't a big deal. Because ultimately, music is about the experience of listening, not debating terminology.
When writing songs you should have a solid grasp of how a refrain functions and serves a song, and why having one is important. But if someone hears your song and identifies a short phrase as a refrain that you never intended, don't get up in arms about it.
Instead, as Taylor Swift's classic song advised us, just shake it off.
Now go forth, and writeth refrain-filled music.