Creating a memorable song often requires crafting catchy hooks and earworms that stay with listeners long after the music stops. Two essential songwriting devices to achieve this are the refrain and the chorus.
While the chorus and refrain of a song might share similar characteristics, there are some important differences between the two.
Especially with respect to how a refrain can support the chorus of a song.
Learning the difference between refrain and chorus will help you understand how to write anthemic, memorable songs that listeners will want to sing along to.
So let’s explore how each one works, and offer tips on how to use them effectively in your songs.
What is a Refrain?
A refrain is a repeated line or phrase, usually found within a song’s verse, outro or bridge. It serves as a recurring theme or motif, helping to establish a song’s identity and build emotional resonance.
Famous examples of refrains include the line “Let it be” in The Beatles’ legendary tune “Let It Be” and “Don’t stop believing” in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Many refrains appear as a repeating line or phrase at the end of each verse or chorus.
Often, the lyrics of a refrain are a central motif to the song’s theme that’s sung as a catchy hook.
You’ll commonly hear a refrain at the end of a song, where it is used as a final repeating lyric that sums up the song’s message.
Sometimes, songwriters may sing a refrain as a standalone section between verses or integrate it into the bridge of a song.
What is a Chorus?
A chorus is a distinct section of a song that typically features a catchy melody, powerful lyrics, and a strong emotional message. It’s designed to grab the listener’s attention and often serves as the song’s climax.
In a literal sense, the term chorus refers to a choir, giving the indication that’s it’s the section the audience should sing along to.
A good chorus will have lyrics that are relatable and use relatively simple melodies, making it fun and catchy enough for the audience to remember.
Most choruses usually appear after the verse and are repeated throughout the song, providing a sense of familiarity, arrival and structure.
Memorable choruses can be found in songs like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
The main differences between refrains and choruses
While both refrains and choruses aim to create memorable moments in a song, they each have their own unique characteristics.
Let’s a take look at a few ways refrains and choruses are different.
Lyrical content and message
Refrains typically feature a single line or phrase, while choruses consist of multiple lines that convey a song’s central theme or message.
But, it’s not uncommon for a refrain to reference and repeat a central line in a chorus, like in the Beatles’ “Let It Be” example.
Refrains often rely on rhythmic repetition and simplicity, whereas choruses may include more complex harmonies, melodies, and rhythms.
Given their, central and often uplifting nature, a chorus might have its own chord progression that diverges from the main chord progression of a song.
The chorus may even get an upwards key change towards the end of a song to create an uplifting effect from the uniform increase in pitch.
Refrains, often have a repeating, sometimes meandering rhythmic sensibility that’s different from the impact of a poetic verse or an anthemic chorus.
In many cases, you’ll hear a refrain sung over a simple, vamped (or repeated) chord progression at the end of a verse or outro to a song.
Song structure and flow
Refrains integrate into various parts of a song, while choruses usually occupy a distinct section, creating a sense of progression and development.
In general, the chorus is usally a song’s most memorable peak.
Chorus literally refers to a choir and is thought of as the part where everyone can sing along.
By contrast, the refrain is more like an afterthought or reprise of the main idea.
That’s why refrains tend to come towards the bridge or outro of a song, in many cases being the last lyrical section.
How to use refrains and choruses in your songwriting
Mastering the art of using refrains and choruses together in your songwriting can greatly enhance your ability to create anthemic and unforgettable tracks.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when writing effective refrains and choruses.
1. Know when to use each device
Understand the unique strengths of both refrains and choruses and use them with intention.
Use refrains for a repeated motif or message, and think of your chorus as a powerful, emotional high point in your song.
2. Ensure they complement each other
Your refrain and chorus should work together harmoniously, rather than competing for attention.
Make sure they enhance one another and contribute to the overall flow and impact of your song.
3. Create a sense of contrast
This can help maintain listener interest and enhance the impact of each section.
4. Use repetition wisely
While both refrains and choruses rely on repetition to create memorable moments, be intentional with your use of repetition.
Striking a balance between repetition and variety will help keep your song engaging and dynamic.
5. Pay attention to song structure
When incorporating both refrains and choruses, be conscious of your song’s structure.
Consider alternating between or using them in different sections of your song to create a sense of progression and development.
6. Allow room for experimentation
Don’t be afraid to break the rules and experiment with unconventional combinations of refrains and choruses.
Trying new approaches can lead to fresh and innovative songwriting that sets your music apart.
Chorus and refrain explained
Understanding the differences between refrains and choruses is essential for any songwriter looking to create memorable and engaging music.
By learning to use both devices effectively, you’ll be able to craft songs that resonate with listeners and leave a lasting impression.
So, don’t be afraid to experiment with refrains and choruses in your songwriting.
With a bit of practice and creativity, you’ll create songs that stand out and connect with listeners.
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