Writing a Song Refrain: It’s Not Just a Short Chorus

If all you know about a refrain is that it’s shorter than a chorus, read on.

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The Beatles - Tomorrow Never KnowsRefrains have been an integral part of songwriting for literally centuries. Over those many hundreds of years, however, its definition has modified. When it used to simply mean any section of a song that is repeated, the terms “refrain” and “chorus” were basically synonymous. In the popular music genres from the mid-20th-21st century, however (pop, rock, country, folk, etc.), a refrain has come to mean a short 1- or 2-line section that operates mainly as the end of a verse, while a chorus is more elaborate, often at least as long as the verse in length. A song with a refrain does not usually include a chorus.

Most songs use a chorus rather than a refrain, and if you’re wondering how to know the difference, make note of:

  1. The length. A refrain is short, usually 1- or 2-lines long.
  2. The way the verse progression and melody end. With a refrain, the verse will often end on a non-tonic chord, requiring the refrain to help bring it to a proper close.
  3. The chord progression. A refrain’s progression is meant to continue from, and quickly end, the progression of the verse.

The other obvious difference is that choruses are written to repeat easily without the need of a verse, while a refrain, which sounds more like an end to a verse, isn’t structured in way that makes repeating it easy.

If you’re thinking of trying to use a refrain instead of a chorus, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Songs with refrains use the verse as its major structural element.

Verse-refrain songs use the verse to relate a story and describe situations and/or people, while the refrain ties the many aspects of the verse together with a kind of “final thought.”

2. Choruses in today’s pop music are very hook-oriented.

Choruses are meant to be remembered, repeated, and to contain the song’s most climactic moments. A refrain is usually more subtle, because it is shorter, and its chief responsibility is to bring the verse to a close. Because a hook plays a smaller role in verse-refrain songs, song structure, melody, harmonic progression and lyric need to be strong partners.

3. Using a Bridge

Because verse-refrain forms are usually shorter than verse-chorus songs, you might want to consider using a bridge after the second refrain. Make sure your bridge is clearly distinguishable from the verse by using a different melody, (usually one that sits higher in pitch than the verse), and different chord progression (usually one that starts in the opposite mode to the verse). Another option is to do what many verse-only songs do, and insert an instrumental section (Example: “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles.)

4. The Climactic High Point

As mentioned before, a song’s climactic moment usually occurs in the chorus, and so verse-refrain songs often lack this important element. Verse melodies often move upward as they proceed, so you can either 1) place the climactic moment at the end of the verse, allowing the refrain to descend down to the tonic note (“The Times They Are A-Changin'”); or 2) place the climactic moment within the refrain (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”).

You’ll find that final point, about the song’s climactic moment, to be a primary concern in the success of verse-refrain songs. Success songs that use this form should use melodies that show a good sense of contour and direction, with momentum driving it forward to the refrain. You achieve this mainly by moving the melody upward.

Some great classic examples of verse-refrain songs: “God Only Knows” (The Beach Boys), with the climactic moment just before the refrain; and an interesting modification of the form: “Dynasty” by Kaskade. The form uses what appears to be a verse-chorus-refrain structure.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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