A refrain (from Vulgar Latin refringere, "to repeat", and later from Old French refraindre) is the line or lines that are repeated in music or in verse; the "chorus" of a song. Poetic fixed forms that feature refrains include the villanelle, the virelay, and the sestina. Refrain is also a verb, meaning to hold back.

The use of refrains is particularly associated with popular music, especially rock and roll, where the verse-chorus-verse song structure typically places a refrain in almost every song. The refrain or chorus often sharply contrasts the verse melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically, and assumes a higher level of dynamics and activity, often with added instrumentation. Chorus form, or strophic form, is a sectional and/or additive way of structuring a piece of music based on the repetition of one formal section or block played repeatedly. See also verse-chorus form.

In music, a refrain has two parts: the lyrics of the song, and the melody. Sometimes refrains vary their words slightly when repeated; recognisability is given to the refrain by the fact that it is always sung to the same tune, and the rhymes, if present, are preserved despite the variations of the words. Such a refrain is featured in "The Star-Spangled Banner," which contains a refrain which is introduced by a different phrase in each verse, but which always ends:

O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

A similar refrain is found in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which affirms in successive verses that "Our God," or "His Truth." is "marching on."

Refrains usually, but do not always, come at the end of the verse. Some songs, especially ballads, incorporate refrains into each verse. For example, one version of the traditional ballad The Cruel Sister includes a refrain mid-verse:

There lived a lady by the North Sea shore,
Lay the bent to the bonny broom
Two daughters were the babes she bore.
Fa la la la la la la la.

As one grew bright as is the sun,
Lay the bent to the bonny broom
So coal black grew the other one.
Fa la la la la la la la.

. . .

(Note : the refrain of 'Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom' is not traditionally associated with the ballad of The Cruel Sister (Child #10). This was the work of 'pop-folk' group Pentangle on their 1970 LP 'Cruel Sister' which has subsequently been picked up by many folk singers as being traditional. Both the melody and the refrain come from the ballad known as Riddles Wisely Expounded (Child #1).)

Here, the refrain is syntactically independent of the narrative poem in the song, and has no obvious relationship to its subject, and indeed little inherent meaning at all. The device can also convey material which relates to the subject of the poem. Such a refrain is found in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Troy Town:

Heavenborn Helen, Sparta's queen,
O Troy Town!
Had two breasts of heavenly sheen,
The sun and moon of the heart's desire:
All Love's lordship lay between,
A sheen on the breasts I Love.
O Troy's down,
Tall Troy's on fire!

. . .

Phrases of apparent nonsense in refrains (Lay the bent to the bonny broom?), and solfege syllables such as fa la la, familiar from the Christmas carol Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, have given rise to much speculation. Some believe that the traditional refrain Hob a derry down O encountered in some English folksongs is in fact an ancient Celtic phrase meaning "dance around the oak tree." These suggestions remain controversial.

In popular music

A pop chorus is not the same as a refrain. At least one well-known writer on pop-song-writing theory has stated this, for example, (Davis, 1990) says that a refrain musically and lyrically resolves a verse and therefore ends it, whereas a chorus begins a distinctively new music section of at least eight bars. A refrain is often a two line repeated lyrical statement commenting on the preceding verse, for example:

"Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down"


"The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind".


"All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?"

This contrasts with the chorus of a typical modern pop song, which is very often more than just one repeated line, for example:

"Do you believe in life after love
I can feel something inside me say
I really don't think you're strong enough, no
Do you believe in life after love?
I can feel something inside me say
I really don't think you're strong enough, no".

It is true that many pop-songs do just consist of a repeated line, so the difference may seem negligible, for example:

"I should be so lucky,
Lucky, lucky, lucky,
I should be so lucky in love,
I should be so lucky,
Lucky, lucky, lucky,
I should be so lucky in love".

Some artists use repeating words or phrases to highlight certain ideas or messages. Jill Scott uses this technique in her song 'Golden':

Living my life like it's golden
Living my life like it's golden
Living my life like it's golden
Living my life like it's golden
Living my life like it's golden, golden
Living my life, Like it's golden, golden, golden, golden, golden, golden

However, there are also crucial differences in the structural purpose and use of the chorus as opposed to the refrain. Choruses such as those cited are musically and lyrically designed so that they can be repeated, for example, in a double-chorus, or at the end of the song, when they form the repeated outro, which very often continues into the fade-out of the recording. (Other structural elements, such as the breakdown, where the sung melodic line of the repeated chorus drops out may also be present here). The point of this is, again crucially, that the chorus contains the lyrical and melodic hook of the song (usually the song-title), which needs to be repeated as often as possible in order to be memorable to the listening audience. Refrains are not intended to be repeated in this way, (although they may contain a hook, but not necessarily the title, as in 'Eleanor Rigby').

A chorus that arrives as a climax to a song is also very often approached by a bridge (which may be called a pre-chorus or climb). The bridge serves to build the song up into the chorus, often using techniques of harmony, melody, instrumentation and production. This does not happen with a refrain. Again, the point is that the chorus is the main part of the song, containing its central message, not simply an ending to, and a comment on the verse.

In summary, the refrain belongs to an earlier tradition of song-writing, e.g. the folk-song, sea-shanty or hymn. The pop-chorus, on the other hand, belongs to a more modern tradition aimed at providing a song-format which, through its ability to repeat a hook with great frequency within the standard three or four minutes of a pop-song, will be most successful on media through which songs are marketed to the consumer, e.g. pop-radio.

See also

External links and references

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