At first glance you might think of a song’s refrain as simply being a shorter version of a chorus. But they’re actually quite different. Choruses are usually complete structures that can be repeated over and over easily, as we notice with final chorus repeats of most pop songs.
But a refrain isn’t a complete structure; it’s usually the final closing line of a verse melody.
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All verses, obviously, have a closing line, so what makes a refrain sound like a refrain, and not just the inevitable end of a verse?
Typically, a refrain has at least the following three important characteristics:
- They use the same (or almost the same) line of lyric each time, while the verse they’re attached to will use different lyrics.
- They typically feature a kind of climactic high point (as you hear in “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'”) when compared to the melodic range of the verse.
- They use a final chord progression called a full close or authentic cadence. In most cases this means ending on a I-chord.
In short, then, an effective song refrain needs a catchy lyrical hook, or at least a line that sums up the meaning and focus of the lyric. A refrain may or may not be an actual hook, but you’ll find that effective refrains often exhibit some of the same qualities as a hook:
- a melodic leap, especially upward.
- a rhythmic device such as a syncopation or some other kind of catchy rhythm.
- a somewhat simple chord progression.
You may not give refrains much thought, especially if you think of the refrain as simply the closing line of your verse. In fact, you may only become aware partway through your songwriting process that you’re actually writing a refrain.
But once you become aware that your song is using a refrain, that’s when you’re analytical brain can help you make the most of it. For any song that uses a refrain, especially if you find you’re not generating much musical excitement with it, see if the following characteristics are present:
- The melody has an upward leap.
- The melody has a climactic high point.
- The lyric offers a kind of summing-up of what the song’s all about.
- The chords are relatively simple, but tonally strong.
- The rhythm is strong, and uses some kind of catchy rhythmic pattern like a syncopation or other interesting structure.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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