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What is the difference between a chorus and a refrain in a song?

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07/27/2014

In popular musicA 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"

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

The answer is blowin' in the wind".

or"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 is also very often approached by a bridge, (also called a pre-chorus or climb), which serves to build the song up into the chorus, often using techniques of harmony, melody, instrumentation and production, which arrives as a climax to the song. 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.