In a recent article on common song structures, we briefly touched on choruses and refrains. And, while both terms are often used interchangeably, and share some similarities, there are differences, at least based on the evolution of refrains from poetry and screenplay. In today’s article, we’re going to explain these differences, show some examples, and demonstrate why refrains are a powerful songwriting tool.
What is the difference between a chorus and a refrain?
While both choruses and refrains are repeated throughout a song a chorus is its own section, consisting of more than one line, with the underlying chord structure usually being different from the verse. Alternatively, a refrain is a line, or melody (usually both) repeated to emphasize a recurring theme, at the beginning or more commonly at the end of a verse.
A refrain is not just a shorter form of a chorus. While serving similar purposes, one could argue that a chorus could otherwise stand independently but a refrain, while being a powerful tool for driving home the central theme of a piece of music or poetry relies on the underlying structure of the song, and could be considered a part of the verse.
How are Refrains used in Music?
Music evokes memories, it’s why simple rhymes are often employed to help children learn or retain important information. We also see examples of this in PSA’s and advertising.
Choruses and refrains are musical tools used to take this one step further due to their repetitive nature (the word ‘refrain’ in simple terms means a statement that is often repeated).
And while choruses and refrains are both used to make music and poetry more memorable, the simplicity of a refrain, compared to a chorus, is perhaps why it is such an effective tool for really driving home a central theme, despite being used much less in modern songwriting compared to the ABAB recurring structure of verse-chorus-verse.
Refrains give a song an emotional center, a familiar place to return, much like a dominant chord seeks resolution after its inherent tension is introduced to a chord progression. It’s for this reason the refrain is often also the title of the song e.g. Tangled up in Blue, The Sound of Silence.
Choruses serve this purpose also but offer up more of a contrast compared to the verse due to the underlying music changing and the duration being longer e.g. 32 bars.
You can hear examples of refrains in music and poetry.
Poe’s ‘The Raven‘ and the familiar refrain ‘nevermore’ are like a home base we keep returning to after each stanza as the story advances and we hear more about the young man lamenting the death of his ‘Lenore’. In fact, the word ‘nevermore’ is repeated 11 times in the second half of the poem.
In music, a great example of a refrain is in the song ‘Tangled up in Blue’, the first song I became aware of by Bob Dylan which chronicles a sad tale of lost love, with the refrain ‘tangled up in blue’ summing up his feelings between sharing each memory in the subsequent verses.
Bob Dylan himself often said this was a song that took ‘”ten years to live and two years to write” and it very much feels that way. The story is told over many years, however, the central theme e.g. his feeling of loss over the women the song was written about is summed up beautifully by the use of the simple refrain “Tangled up in blue” which ties the verses together.
It’s doubtful, that the song would have told the story so clearly with a more elaborate chorus.
Other great examples include the traditional English ballad ‘Scarborough Fair’ and its refrain “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” which, unlike other examples mentioned here is heard at the beginning of each verse, as the second line. So memorable is this refrain, it’s the album title of the 1966 release by Simon and Garfunkel featured the song.
Another example by Simon and Garfunkel is the ‘The Boxer”, with its familiar “lie-la-lie” refrain. Rumor has it, the line was originally just a placeholder until more memorable lyrics could be written, which seems funny now considering it’s the most memorable part of the song for many listeners.
Using Refrains in Your Own Music
You will often hear refrains used in strophic form, a song structure often heard in folk and traditional music. An example of this is the refrain ‘my fair lady’ heard in the traditional English song ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.
Strophic form (aka AAA structure) simply means the underlying music doesn’t change while the lyrics do. While a typical AAA structure might seem somewhat limiting, the simplicity of this song structure allows other elements, namely lyrics to shine.
For example, the familiar home base of the refrain, and its lack of complexity musically, compared to a more elaborate chorus allows the writer to venture into new territory lyrically, without departing too far from the central theme. The use of a simple refrain bringing cohesiveness and tying everything back together, due in no small part because of its simplicity compared to a 32 bar chorus.
Typically this kind of song is also shorter in duration or may evolve to take on the form of an AABA song structure as an additional section is often required to break the monotony.
While you may hear the terms chorus and refrain used interchangeably, they both serve different purposes however due to the modern usage of both terms are often seen as the same thing. In any case, the larger point is the use of repetition and simplicity to reinforce the central theme of a song. Write your own refrains by crafting a short melody that finishes on the tonic note, and write the lyric as more or less a summary of the story, tying each verse together. Compositional tools such as refrains can really aid the songwriting journey, after all, there’s a reason many of the examples included above are from revered songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.