A refrain is not a short chorus. It’s better thought of as the end of a long verse. In that respect, since most song refrains will end on the tonic chord (the I-chord of your chosen key), the best chord progressions for a refrain will be ones that drive strongly toward that tonic chord by way of a very strong, short progression.
Think of the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as a good example of a refrain. It starts on the IV-chord, goes through a wonderfully rich choice of chords, finally moving Abdim/B to Eb. Hear that progression here.
Ab Bb/Ab Adim Eb/Bb Cm7 Ab Abdim/B Eb
When you hear that progression, you can hear , even as the refrain progression starts, a kind of relentless drive toward the tonic note and chord: Eb.
And that’s what a good refrain progression does. Sometimes it does it quite simply, as you’ll hear in the refrain for Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” — a simple I to V and back to I (G – D7 – G)
It really doesn’t matter how simple or complex the refrain progression is. What does matter is that drive toward the tonic.
Here are five examples of chord progressions that could work well in a song refrain. The key for each progression is given, and you’ll hear that the closer you get to the end of the refrain, the stronger the drive to the tonic:
- Key: C major: Dm G Em Am| Fmaj7 G C
- Key: C minor: Ddim G Fm Fdim| Cm/G G Cm
- Key: F major: Bb C Dm Bb| F/C C F
- Key: G minor: Gm Cm F Gm| Eb F Gm
- Key: C major: F G C/E Dm| F G C
As you can see, all five of these progressions involve seven chords. If you’re strumming them on guitar, try two strums per chord, or experiment with them any way you like.
The purpose of those chords isn’t necessarily to say that they’ll work in whatever song you happen to be writing at the moment. Their purpose is more as a demonstration of what refrain chords should be doing: helping the drive toward the tonic chord.
In that sense, they can show you want your refrain chords can and should be doing.
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