What Is A Refrain In Music

Man playing guitar outside sitting on a rock

In my choir I noticed the lyric sheet said “refrain” anywhere there was a chorus, so it got me wondering – What’s the difference between a refrain and a chorus?

A refrain is any part of the song where the lyrics repeat. It is similar to a chorus, except that a refrain refers specifically to the lyrics themselves and not to the music. The word ‘refrain’ comes from poetry where a single line or group of lines are repeated, usually at the end of a phrase. Read on to learn more about refrains and how they are different from choruses.

What is the difference between a Refrain and a Chorus?

All choruses are refrains but not all refrains are choruses. This means that a chorus is a certain kind of refrain.

So what’s the difference, exactly?

A refrain specifically refers to the lyrics. This means as long as you’re repeating the same words it is a refrain. You could sing those words with a different melody (different musical notes) and it would still be a refrain.

A chorus also repeats like a refrain except that it repeats both the lyrics AND the musical notes. This small distinction is why choruses can be easily be confused for refrains.

During a chorus, all the musical instruments play the same part over and over throughout the song.

Why is there a different word for Refrain and Chorus?

The original meaning of refrain comes from poetry, specifically referring to a line or more that are repeated – the words themselves.

The original meaning for the word ‘chorus’ come from Ancient Greek theater where a group of people (called ‘the chorus’) would perform parts of the play together.

Nowadays this means that a chorus is a separate part of the song where a group of musicians perform the same part.

Check out this post if you’d like to know more about the chorus.

What word should I use – Refrain or Chorus?

If you are referring just to the lyrics that repeat in a song, you can say those are a refrain.

If you would like to refer to the lyrics and the music that repeat together, you would say that is a chorus.

These days, the distinction between the two words is not well-known and most use the two words interchangeably.

However, if you were to delve more deeply into songwriting you would notice that throughout history there have been different “songwriting forms” where songs take on a certain structure.

For pop songs today, the distinction between refrain and chorus is not that important.

But, if you’re interested in musical theater or music from the early 1900s you would notice that the difference between refrain and chorus does matter.

How to Easily Tell the Difference between a Refrain and a Chorus

If you see a part of a song that is completely separate from the verses and repeats the same musical notes, that would be the Chorus.

A chorus is usually set apart from the rest of the verses and is very prominent. Most pop songs today have a chorus that repeats at least three times.

The chorus will usually have a hook that is memorable and “gets stuck in your head” and contains the name of the song.

For example, “Help!” by The Beatles instantly brings to mind the chorus of that song.

A refrain is a line that repeats at the end of phrases.

A famous example of a refrain is from Bob Dylan’s song ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’:

“The answer my friend
Is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind”

A more recent example of a refrain comes from ‘Ocean Avenue’ by Yellowcard:

In the first and second verses you have the first refrain:

“Sleeping all day staying up all night
Staying up all night”

In this example the refrain would be, “Staying up all night.”

This particular phrase is only repeated twice.

Another refrain appears in the verses after the first chorus:

“I can make believe that you’re here tonight
That you’re here tonight”

The refrain here is, “That you’re here tonight.”

Does a refrain have to be exactly the same each time?

If your lyrics only have small differences then it can still be considered a refrain. This can be a fun idea to play with to get creative in your songwriting.

The idea of the refrain is not 100% set in stone. It is up to interpretation and that is part of the joy and creativity of songwriting.

How to use Refrains Creatively In Your Next Song

Now that you know what a refrain is you might be inspired to write some new songs.

Here are some ideas on how to creatively use refrains:

  • Use a refrain throughout a song that is sung with a different melody each time
  • Try to incorporate a refrain into your next song that reinforces or contrasts with the main idea
  • Add a refrain that adds an extra dimension to the meaning of your song
  • Use a refrain in a chorus, where the rest of the chorus is lyrically different except for the last one or two lines (the refrain)

Use this knowledge in your next songwriting session and listen extra closely to your favorite songs and see what kind of refrains you might start noticing!