Now, this is a musical term that often causes its fair share of confusion. So, exactly what is a refrain in music?
One of the reasons it is often misconstrued is because it applies not only to music. You can have a refrain in a poem, for example. In that case, it would be a line or a series of lines that repeat at the end of a stanza. It was in poetry that the refrain has its roots.
Additionally, you can have a refrain in a speech or written prose if a phrase repeats itself several times in the text. Or where we associate the word, which is at the end of a verse in a song.
Is it a Chorus or a Refrain?
The two are often confused with each other. Although they are related, they are not the same. Often they perform a very similar action, but they are not the same. Likewise, they often appear in the same place in a song, but they are different.
Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between them. If you can determine and understand the difference between the two, your songwriting will improve. Here are two easy ways to understand the relationship that exists between them.
- All Choruses are also refrains, but refrains are not all choruses.
- Refrains apply only to the lyrics of the song, the chorus is all about the music.
Let’s Clarify a Bit
The simplest definition of a refrain in music is a line or several lines of lyrics that repeat in the words of the song. The songwriter can “hook” the listener by reinforcing a point by repeating a lyric that enforces what is being said.
Think about songs that people sing along to. They get to the part they know the best and belt it out at full volume. That is probably the refrain and is the most recognizable part of a song to the listener. When you need an answer to the question, “What is a refrain in music?” that’s pretty much it. The recognizable part everyone remembers.
All Choruses are Refrains
The chorus is used by songwriters as a way of repeating some lyrics you want to impress on the listener – the refrain. That is the reason why all choruses are refrains in music.
Of course, some songs don’t have what might be described as a chorus. That sounds like a strange thing to say. But they might be more common than you realize. Here are some popular songs that don’t have a chorus in the traditional sense.
- Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin.
- Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen.
- All Along The Watchtower – Bob Dylan (or Jimi Hendrix, whichever you prefer).
- Paranoid – Black Sabbath.
- Hello – Lionel Richie.
- My Way – Frank Sinatra.
- Money – Pink Floyd.
- Pinball Wizard – The Who.
- Space Oddity – David Bowie.
I’ll stop there. You get my point; there are plenty around. In these circumstances, the refrain carries itself with the power of the words.
Where Do You Find Refrains?
Everywhere. Every style of music uses them. From Classical music through Folk and Country songs to Pop and Rock. Refrains are everywhere.
Words can be repeated through a song many times. Not as part of a chorus, but as a simple refrain that we all get to know. Bob Dylan was a master at the refrain.
- All Along The Watchtower.
- Blowin In The Wind.
- The Times They Are a-Changin’.
- A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.
All these are songs with an impressive refrain that pushes the song forward. He, like others, was able to make the refrains in his songs the focal point, using the lyrics. And in many cases, he uses those refrain lyrics as the song titles.
In Strophic Form, every verse or chorus is played or sung using the same refrain. This is found in traditional songs like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” The refrain is “coming for to carry me home.” This is repeated in the middle of each verse as well as at the end.
Using The Refrain
We have already seen how Bob Dylan, amongst others, used the refrain in his songs. Most of the examples I gave were from his earlier work. When the rebel was biting at the US Government, he wanted to emphasize some of his lyrics. To ram the point home. And that he did with the use of the refrain.
With other songs, the refrain is used more gently. Sometimes, almost whimsical in its delivery. A good example of this is The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Furthermore, it becomes almost a chant as in “We Will Rock You” by Queen.
Lost Along The Way
In some circles, the difference between a chorus and a refrain has been lost. Furthermore, they are often wrongly used interchangeably. It is easy to understand why.
As I said earlier, all choruses are refrains, that is understood. The problem is defining the difference. However, one of the problems is that not all refrains are choruses. This seems to have been overlooked for the sake of convenience. This is why a musician needs to have at least a basic grasp of music theory. Whatever instrument you play.
Now, I understand in some circles that it is considered “unnecessary” and “not cool.” But, if you are serious about your musicianship or your songwriting, it is important. So, here are a few guides to get you started if you need to.
- Scales and Chords in all the Major and Minor Keys
- Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert
- Great Songwriting Techniques
Interested in Learning More About Music?
Our experts can help. Take a look at our handy articles on What Is Theme And Variation In Music, What is a Motif in Music, What is Binary Form in Music, What Is A Half Diminished Chord, The Dorian Mode, Using Lyrical Interpretation to Discover the Meaning of a Song, and Steps to Learning Basic Songwriting for more useful information.
You may also want to think about an instrument upgrade. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Trumpet, the Best Yamaha Saxophones, the Best Selmer Saxophones, the Best Student Violins, the Best Electric Violins, the Best Kawai Digital Piano, and the Best Portable Keyboard Pianos you can buy in 2023.
What is a Refrain in Music – Final Thoughts
It can be a confusing concept at times. And we often find the boundaries blurred between the chorus and the refrain. But, if you are referring to just lyrics, you can say that is a refrain.
It is a powerful tool in songwriting. One that can give your lyrics and your song impact. It can reinforce what you are trying to say. So, if you find yourself singing along to a small part of a song, it is likely the refrain. In that case, it has done its job.
Until next time, let your music play.