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I'm trying to learn something about song structure. Reading the Wikipedia article about the subject I came across two terms that looked somewhat similar: chorus and refrain. There seemed to be a debate about the definitions for both words. The Wikipedia articles says:

"The difference between refrain and chorus is not always cut-and-dried; both refer to passages of unchanging music and text providing a periodic sense of return." [...] "The chorus contains the main idea, or big picture, of what is being expressed lyrically and musically. It is repeated throughout the song, and the melody and lyric rarely vary." A refrain is, "a repeated line or musical phrase that ties a song together... A refrain is only a phrase, or a word, while a chorus contains many more words."

Then I went to the refrain article:

While the terms 'refrain' and 'chorus' often are used synonymously, it has been suggested to use 'refrain' exclusively for a recurring line of identical text and melody which is part of a formal section —an A section in an AABA form [...]— whereas 'chorus' shall refer to a discrete form part [...].

I take as an example of 'refrain' the song The sound of silence, as it does not contain a typical 'chorus' but every verse ends with the song title being mentioned. That repeating line would be a 'refrain', whereas a 'chorus' would be the "We all live in a yellow submarine" part in the Beatles' song.

So I want to understand if there is really such distinction between both terms in music theory or not, and what that difference is (motivation: I'm trying to translate both terms into Spanish, but both seems to translate as 'estribillo' making no distinction). I am not sure if the terms overlap (e.g. a 'chorus' is a particular type of 'refrain') or distinct (e.g. a 'refrain' is a repeated theme or line outside the 'chorus'). Or are they just used as synonyms, as the definition for 'refrain' suggests? (Merriam-webster: "a regularly recurring phrase or verse especially at the end of each stanza or division of a poem or song : chorus".)

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    @StanislasHildebrandt the first text I cite in my question is taken from that link precisely. – Charlie Apr 5 '18 at 7:55
  • .......Collide? – aparente001 Apr 9 '18 at 0:51
  • @aparente001 sorry, maybe "overlap" is a better word. Feel free to propose edits if you see more mistakes. :-) – Charlie Apr 11 '18 at 6:09
  • @Charlie - Okay, I did a little more - but please double-check that the result is faithful to what you were asking. – aparente001 Apr 11 '18 at 16:30
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It gets more complicated. The term 'refrain' comes from a time when poems were routinely set to music, and it is more appropriately left for the discussion of Classical and Romantic songs.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, a popular or 'parlour' song was likely to have a verse and a chorus (or according to some old sheet music, the refrain). The verse set up the chorus (refrain). The chorus was typically AABA structure. At some point, for reasons described here, the verse tended to be omitted in recordings and Broadway performances.

So now, everyone knows My Funny Valentine, but not everybody knows the verse, and we consider the AABA chorus (refrain) to be the entire song and not the chorus.

More modern pop and rock songs moved to a Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus structure, in which the chorus was repeated, unchanged, and the term 'refrain' was cast aside. There ain't no refrain in Enter Sandman, and even if you found one, you'd be heckled for mentioning it.

Flanders and Swann appeared to be in no doubt as to what constituted a refrain when they penned The Hippopotamus Song, because they actually wrote it in the lyrics (of the verse):

A regular army of hippopotami
All singing this haunting refrain

Mud, mud, glorious mud (etc.)

BTW, The Sounds of Silence would be considered strophic in structure. Simon and Garfunkel came from the folk tradition, where strophic song structure had been all the rage for centuries.

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Strictly speaking of pop/rock music I think there is a difference between chorus and refrain. A chorus is a full blown section that has harmony, lyrics, and melody that is repeated and generally contains the "hook" of the song. The verse, like others have stated, have the same harmony and melody but the lyrics move the story along and are different from verse to verse. It is usually not as catchy as the chorus. A refrain is mostly like a verse but instead of leading into a full blown chorus it has one line that contains the hook which is repeated lyrically and melodically.

Smoking Gun by robert Cray is the example that came to mind first:

The interesting thing about this example, and honestly one of the subtle things I love about this song is that the refrain's lyric is slightly different each time, which helps move the story along. I know this does not fit my definition above exactly but, hey, no rules in music, right?

I think the OP's idea below is correct:

I take as an example of 'refrain' the song The sound of silence, as it does not contain a typical 'chorus' but every verse ends with the song title being mentioned. That repeating line would be a 'refrain', whereas a 'chorus' would be the "We all live in a yellow submarine" part in the Beatles' song.

  • I've just remembered a song: "So far away" by Dire Straits. In this song we have a chorus: "so far away from me, so far I just can't see...". But also the verses have a repeating line: "you're so far away from me". That's a refrain, then, according to my theory, right? – Charlie Apr 6 '18 at 10:26
  • @Charlie great example. I guess you could call that a verse/refrain. The fact that it happens so often and is so short (just one verse line per refrain line) makes it less common. But still a good example if not super typical. Check out Bob Dylan Blowing in the wind. – b3ko Apr 6 '18 at 17:08
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First, two definitions from Google “define chorus”. I gather this material is supplied by one of the big dictionary vendors, but I can’t remember which. I’ll try to remember to look it up …

The term chorus

  1. a part of a song which is repeated after each verse.

derives from, funnily enough, the (now second) older meaning of chorus,

  1. a large organized group of singers, especially one which performs with an orchestra or opera company.

In the bad old days, a soloist would sing a verse, then a group of voices would chime in with a repeated line, e.g. Shia LaBoeuf or For his mercies ay endure ....

As this chorus almost universally was also a refrain, it stands to reason that they are more-or-less synonymous.

If it happens once at the end, it's a reprise.

For further reading, and a much older source of the word, see Oxford Living Dictionaries, especially

  1. (in ancient Greek tragedy) a group of performers who comment together on the main action.
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It's a very loose distinction in terms of popular, folk and jazz music. It may have some technical definition in classical but here is a simple one:

The verse is where you talk about and detail the song subject. Each verse will typically have its own set of words.

The chorus is where you repeat the catch melody or hook after each verse, with the words typically repeating as well.

-The refrain is where you mix it up with something a bit different to break the monotony. The refrain is also sometimes called a bridge. if it occurs just once (a refrain usually repeats at least once).

Here is an example :

"Don't Pull Your love out on Me baby" an old 80s hit and a crowd pleaser:

Cheesy video apologies.

-Chorus : Introduce with hook "Don't Pull Your Love "

-First verse "are you gonna leave"

-Chorus : "Dont pull your love out on me Baby" repeats.

-Second verse : "do I have to get on knees" -- more details of romantic pain

-Chorus

then there is a

-Refrain (or Bridge) "there's so much I wanna do" -- which is just a little filler here to get back to

-Chorus

and repeat the chorus hook back out there until end of song.

You can see how the verse and refrain is used to "set up" the chorus emotionally.

The refrain/bridge is just a filler here, just to set up the close on the chorus. It could be dropped and the crowd won't notice.

There is no hard and fast rule about how or when to use these distinctions or in what order. Most songs have the verse then the chorus -- but note here we get the chorus out right away. The distinction is really up the writer and how the audience perceives it.

As far as "Sound of Silence" I would say it has nothing but verses and each verse ends with the same line -- but the first verse music (?) is a bit different and this could be called an introduction (From memory). It is a unusual structure in that respect.

Take a look at some popular musicals -- they typically have a verse chorus structure with bridges, refrains, intros.

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    This was totally unexpected. I know the concept of "bridge" in a song. You say a "bridge" can also be called a "refrain", but a bridge in song structure usually does not repeat and is a completely different verse compared to the rest of the song. How does that match with the definition for "refrain" ("a regularly recurring phrase or verse")? – Charlie Apr 5 '18 at 9:41
  • It doesn't in a strict sense -- a refrain is typically expected to repeat. A bridge may or may not repeat. However, they both function to create a transition (a bridge) to other sections of music – Kevin Connelly Apr 5 '18 at 9:47
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    I've definitely had some confusion myself with the term Bridge. In most of what I actually do musically, the bridge is played once, however, I've definitely seen Bridge used in other contexts. I've heard it used to describe the B section of a Jazz head and I've heard it used to describe a repeated C section of a popular song form, such as some Beatles songs (unfortunately can't think of any examples now but I believe it's more common on their earlier albums). – Basstickler Apr 5 '18 at 14:07

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