Refrain in Music: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

When you listen to your favorite song, do you hear a repeated phrase in each verse? Does it stick in your head? In this lesson, explore the definition of a song refrain and look at some examples.

Definition

The refrain in a song is a line or phrase that repeats at the end of a verse (the part of the song that tells the story). It's usually one or two lines and it sometimes reinforces the song's main point or repeats the title. The idea of a refrain has been around for a long time, and it comes from the Latin word refringere and the old French word refraindre, both of which mean to repeat. One point of clarification here: sometimes a refrain is called a chorus, but they aren't exactly the same thing and definitions have changed over the years. In general, a chorus is much longer than a refrain. It tends to be a whole series of phrases that are sung between verses.

Here's what you should remember: however varied the song format, refrains and verses work together. Verses tell the story. They're always different and move the song along. The refrain comes at the end and is always the same.

Example of Simple Refrain

Let's look at an example of an old song with a simple refrain. The children's song 'London Bridge is Falling Down' is based on an old English nursery rhyme. The lyrics refer to struggles building and repairing London Bridge over the River Thames. The refrain possibly refers to a queen who spent money on her own needs rather than on the bridge!

This song is long. It has twelve verses, and each one discusses different building materials (including wood, cement and steel) and related problems in trying to keep the bridge in shape. Each verse has four lines and the last is always the phrase 'My fair Lady.' Whenever the bridge has a problem or needs repairs, people have to go to the royals for the funds.

Examples of a Longer Refrain

Many popular songs include refrains. Here's an example from the late 1960s. The Beatles' song 'When I'm Sixty-Four', written by Paul McCartney, is a humorous love song that peers into the future. Emphasizing the point that the singer is hoping for a long relationship with the person to whom he's singing, we hear the repeated phrase, 'Will you still need me, will you still feed me, When I'm sixty-four?' After each discussion of life, children and grandchildren, that phrase occurs again. It effectively reinforces the point of the song, which is also the title.

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