A refrain (from Vulgar Latin refringere, "to repeat", and later from Old French refraindre) is the line or lines that are repeated in music or in verse; the "chorus" of a song. Poetic fixed forms that feature refrains include the villanelle, the virelay, and the sestina.
The use of refrains is particularly associated with where the verse-chorus-verse song structure typically places a refrain in almost every song. The refrain or chorus often sharply contrasts the verse melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically, and assumes a higher level of dynamics and activity, often with added instrumentation. Chorus form, or strophic form, is a sectional and/or additive way of structuring a piece of music based on the repetition of one formal section or block played repeatedly. See also verse-chorus form.
Usage in history
Renaissance period in music: Thomas Morley (Ballett ca.1595): "My bonny lass she smileth." Fa la la refrain in bar five.
In music, a refrain has two parts: the lyrics of the song, and the melody. Sometimes refrains vary their words slightly when repeated; recognisability is given to the refrain by the fact that it is always sung to the same tune, and the rhymes, if present, are preserved despite the variations of the words. Such a refrain is featured in "The Star-Spangled Banner," which contains a refrain which is introduced by a different phrase in each verse, but which always ends:
- O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.
A similar refrain is found in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which affirms in successive verses that "Our God," or "His Truth," is "marching on."
Refrains usually, but not always, come at the end of the verse. Some songs, especially ballads, incorporate refrains into each verse. For example, one version of the traditional ballad "The Cruel Sister" includes a refrain mid-verse:
- There lived a lady by the North Sea shore,
- Lay the bent to the bonny broom
- Two daughters were the babes she bore.
- As one grew bright as is the sun,
- Lay the bent to the bonny broom
- So coal black grew the other one.
- Fa la la la la la la la.
- . . .
(Note: the refrain of 'Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom' is not traditionally associated with the ballad of The Cruel Sister (Child #10). This was the work of 'pop-folk' group Pentangle on their 1970 LP 'Cruel Sister' which has subsequently been picked up by many folk singers as being traditional. Both the melody and the refrain come from the ballad known as Riddles Wisely Expounded (Child #1).)
Here, the refrain is syntactically independent of the narrative poem in the song, and has no obvious relationship to its subject, and indeed little inherent meaning at all. The device can also convey material which relates to the subject of the poem. Such a refrain is found in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Troy Town":
- Heavenborn Helen, Sparta's queen,
- O Troy Town!
- Had two breasts of heavenly sheen,
- The sun and moon of the heart's desire:
- All Love's lordship lay between,
- A sheen on the breasts I Love.
- O Troy's down,
- Tall Troy's on fire!
- . . .
Phrases of apparent nonsense in refrains (Lay the bent to the bonny broom?), and solfege syllables such as fa la la, familiar from the Christmas carol "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly", have given rise to much speculation. Some believe that the traditional refrain Hob a derry down O encountered in some English folksongs is in fact an ancient Celtic phrase meaning "dance around the oak tree." These suggestions remain controversial.
In popular music
In popular music the chorus may include the entire AABA section in thirty-two-bar form (the bridge consisting of B), or it may consist of every B section (with the bridge being C), as in ABABCAB. The chorus contrasts with the verse, which leads into it, while the bridge contrasts with and leads into both. "Many popular songs, particularly from early in this century, are in a verse and a chorus (refrain) form. Most popular songs from the middle of the century consist only of a chorus."
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 (as in I Got Rhythm: "...who could ask for anything more?") or a verse (as in Blowing in the Wind: "...the answer my friend is blowing in the wind")—whereas 'chorus' shall refer to a discrete form part (as in Yellow Submarine: "We all live in a...").
In jazz, an arranger's chorus is where the arranger uses particularly elaborate techniques to exhibit his or her skill and to impress the listener. This may include use of counterpoint, reharmonization, tone color, or any other arranging device. The arranger's chorus is generally not the first or the last chorus of a jazz performance.
In jazz, a shout chorus is usually the last chorus of a Big Band arrangement, and is characterized by being the most energetic, lively, and exciting and by containing the musical climax of the piece. A shout chorus characteristically employs extreme ranges, loud dynamics, and a re-arrangement of melodic motives into short, accented riffs. Shout choruses often feature tutti or concerted writing, but may also use contrapuntal writing or call and response between the brass and saxophones, or between the ensemble and the drummer. Additionally, brass players frequently use extended techniques such as falls, doits, turns, and shakes to add excitement.
- Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, inc. "Troy Town" at the Wayback Machine (archived February 25, 2004)
- Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.317. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
- Appen, Ralf von / Frei-Hauenschild, Markus "AABA, Refrain, Chorus, Bridge, Prechorus — Song Forms and their Historical Development". In: Samples. Online Publikationen der Gesellschaft für Popularmusikforschung/German Society for Popular Music Studies e.V. Ed. by Ralf von Appen, André Doehring and Thomas Phleps. Vol. 13 (2015).
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