What Is a Refrain? Definition & 10+ Examples

Ever caught yourself humming the same line of a song over and over again? That’s likely because of a refrain, a recurring feature that appears in music and poetry across cultures and eras. This intriguing phenomenon has captivated the hearts and minds of audiences throughout history and can enhance any form of artistic expression when used effectively.

In this article, we will delve into the concept of refrains, examining the definition and origins of this literary and musical device. We will also explore notable examples from works spanning different generations to appreciate the power and versatility of the refrain.

Lastly, we will equip you with practical knowledge on how to employ refrains to elevate your own writing, whether for prose, poetry, or song. With this understanding, you’ll be well-prepared to make use of this timeless technique to captivate your readers or listeners.

Let’s get started:

Table of Contents

What Is a Refrain?

A refrain is a repeated phrase or line in a piece of literature or music. It serves to emphasize the main theme or emotional impact of the work. The term itself originates from the Old French word “refraindre,” meaning to repeat or hold back.

Refrain in Music

In the context of music, a refrain is often found in the chorus of a song, where the same lines are repeated after each verse. This repetition helps convey the central message or emotion of the song, making it more memorable for listeners.

Examples of refrains in popular songs include:

  • “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad” — The Beatles’ Hey Jude
  • “I will always love you” — Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You

Refrain in Poetry

When it comes to poetry, a refrain functions similarly as in music. It is a repeated line or group of lines, typically found at the end of each stanza or verse. The purpose of a refrain in poetry is to create emphasis, unity, and rhythm within the poem.

Here are examples of refrains in famous poems:

  • “Do not go gentle into that good night” — Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
  • “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!'” — Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven

By incorporating refrains into their work, artists and writers can effectively reinforce their themes and evoke a stronger emotional response from their audience.

Did You Know? An intriguing historical tidbit is the famous refrain "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore'" from Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. This line became a signature element of the poem and is now often used as an example of how powerfully a refrain can contribute to the atmosphere and meaning of a piece.

Linguistic Origins of Refrain

Its etymology is borrowed from Old French, where the word “refraindre” meant to hold back or restrain. This word itself has its origins in Latin, derived from the term “refringere” which translates to break off or break apart.

A Journey Through Time: The History of Refrains

Refrains have a rich history that dates back to ancient cultures across the world.

In these early societies, refrains played an essential role in oral storytelling traditions, such as epic poems and folk songs. These repeating lines or phrases helped convey a sense of rhythm and made it easier for listeners to remember and pass on the stories.

Medieval Times: The Birth of the “Refrain”

The earliest documented usage of the term “refrain” in the context of poetry and songs dates back to the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The practice of incorporating a refrain into songs and poems was widespread across Europe during the Middle Ages.

Some examples of early works featuring refrains include:

  • Carmina Burana

A collection of medieval poetry written in the 11th to 13th centuries, Carmina Burana contains numerous examples of refrains being used to emphasize key themes and ideas.

  • Ballades

A popular form of French poetry in the 14th and 15th centuries, ballades often featured a refrain to establish a structural pattern and create a sense of unity in the composition.

  • Sumer Is Icumen In

An English medieval poem dating back to the mid-13th century, Sumer Is Icumen In repeats the phrase “Sing cuccu!” throughout, using it as a refrain to signify the arrival of summer.

Refrains in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the use of refrains evolved and expanded, serving as an essential part of songs and poetry.

During these periods, refrains held a significant place in both religious and secular works, with early chants and hymns heavily featuring refrains to emphasize their messages.

Romantic Era

Moving into the era of Romanticism, refrains continued to play a prominent role in literature and music.

Poets of this time, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, used refrains to evoke emotion and create a sense of unity within their works. This period also saw the rise of folk ballads, which often included refrains to reinforce their narratives and themes.

Contemporary Refrain: Cornerstone of Modern Songwriting

In contemporary popular culture, refrains have become a cornerstone of songwriting across genres. They serve as hooks that capture the listener’s attention and often become the most memorable part of the song.

From pop anthems to country ballads, refrains are a crucial tool in modern storytelling through music.

Additionally, historical and cultural contexts shape how refrains are perceived and used. For example:

  • Medieval Troubadours: Frequently employed refrains as structural elements in their poems and songs
  • African American Spirituals: Utilized refrains to convey messages of hope, resilience, and unity
  • Japanese Renga: Incorporated refrains as connecting links between stanzas in collaborative poetry
Pro Tip: When interpreting a refrain, it is essential to consider the historical context in which it was created. This understanding can provide insight into the purpose and meaning of the refrain within the work.

The Heartbeat of the Song: Function and Purpose of Refrains


Refrains play a crucial role in emphasizing a song’s main theme or message. Repeating specific lines or phrases allow the songwriter to highlight the essential ideas and provide a focus for the listener.

This repetition creates a sense of familiarity, making it easier for the listener to recognize and connect with the song’s core message.


In addition to emphasizing the main theme, refrains also contribute to the overall unity of a song. By incorporating consistent and repeated elements throughout the piece, they help establish a sense of cohesion and structure.

This can be particularly important when dealing with more complex themes or musical arrangements, as a well-placed refrain can tie everything together and make the song feel more complete and polished.


One of the most significant functions of a refrain is its ability to make a song more memorable. Catchy and repetitive phrases are more likely to stick in the listener’s mind, making the song easier to recall and hum later on.

The simple repetition of a refrain can make it the most memorable part of a song and contribute to its overall popularity.

Refrains can vary greatly in length, complexity, and placement within a composition.

Type of VariationDescription
LengthRefrains can be short and simple or longer and more intricate.
ComplexityRefrains can vary from simple, easy-to-remember lines to complex verses with layered meanings.
PlacementRefrains can be placed at the end of each stanza or interspersed throughout the piece.
EffectVariations in refrains allow for a diverse range of effects in the composition.
Stylistic ChoicesThe use of refrains can influence the overall style of the composition.

Types of Refrain

Simple Refrain

A simple refrain is a repetitive line or phrase that appears at the end of each stanza or verse. It is uncomplicated in form and often used to emphasize a specific message or theme within the composition.

Complex Refrain

In contrast to a simple refrain, a complex refrain contains multiple lines or phrases that are repeated throughout the work. These may vary in length and placement, adding complexity to the overall structure of the piece.

Musical or Chorus Refrain

A musical refrain, also known as a chorus, is a repeated section in a song, typically featuring the main melody and lyrics that summarize the theme of the piece. This type of refrain is often the most memorable and catchy part of a song.

Partial Refrain

A partial refrain occurs when only a portion of a line or phrase is repeated. This can create an interesting rhythmic effect, drawing attention to specific words or ideas within the composition.

Incremental Refrain

In an incremental refrain, a line or phrase is repeated with slight variations each time. This can create a sense of progression and development in the piece as the refrain builds upon itself.

Call-and-Response Refrain

A call-and-response refrain involves alternating between two groups, with one group “calling” and the other “responding” in a repeated pattern. This form of refrain can create a sense of dialogue or interaction within the piece.

Fixed Refrain

A fixed refrain maintains the same wording, rhythm, and structure each time it is repeated. This can create a sense of stability and familiarity within the composition.

Floating Refrain

Unlike a fixed refrain, a floating refrain does not follow a fixed pattern and can appear at different points in the composition. This creates an element of surprise and unpredictability.

Internal Refrain

An internal refrain is a repeated line or phrase that occurs within a single stanza, rather than at the end of each stanza. This type of refrain can create a sense of unity or cohesion within a particular section of the composition.

Stanza Refrain

A stanza refrain includes an entire stanza that is repeated at regular intervals throughout the piece. This can provide a broader structure and thematic continuity to the work.

Line or Phrase Refrain

This type of refrain focuses on a single line or phrase that is repeated throughout the composition. The repetition can serve to emphasize a central message or create a memorable and captivating hook.


A villanelle is a specific form of poetry that features repeating lines throughout the poem, arranged in a fixed pattern. This structure creates a unique interplay between refrains and new verses, contributing to the overall effect of the poem.

Refrain vs. Chorus

A refrain and a chorus are two distinct elements often found in musical compositions and songs, especially in popular music. Although they seem similar at first glance, there are some key differences between them.

TermDefinitionLocation in CompositionLength and ComplexityFunctionFrequency of Repetition
RefrainA line or a group of lines that is repeated in a song or poem.At the end of each stanza.Brief and concise, usually a memorable phrase or sentence.Reinforces the song’s or poem’s central theme or message.Typically repeated after each stanza.
ChorusA separate section of a song, typically appearing after a verse.Distinct section, typically after the verse.Longer than a refrain and often more complex, featuring distinct melodies and harmonies.Serves as the central part of a song.Usually repeated multiple times throughout the song.

One notable difference between a refrain and a chorus lies in their structure.

  • While a refrain is woven into the verse and repeated at the end of a stanza, a chorus acts as its own separate section.
  • A refrain appears as a recurring line within the verse, whereas a chorus is a standalone section that is repeated throughout the song.

Another significant difference is the impact each has on a listener.

  • A refrain may become more memorable due to its repetition within the stanza, driving home the main theme or idea.
  • On the other hand, a chorus serves as a contrasting component that breaks up the verses, providing a catchy and engaging focal point for the listener.

Examples of Refrain in Literature

Famous Poems

Refrains are commonly found in poetry, as they help emphasize certain ideas or emotions.

  • Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

In this villanelle, the lines “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” serve as refrains throughout the poem, reinforcing the poet’s call for defiance in the face of death.

  • The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

The word “Nevermore” is used as a refrain, spoken by the titular raven. This repetition adds to the melancholic atmosphere and the sense of inevitability surrounding the poem’s themes of loss and despair.

  • Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

In Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, the refrain appears in the final stanza:

"And miles to go before I sleep." 

This line emphasizes the poem’s themes of perseverance and the enduring journey of life despite distractions.

Prose Works

While refrains are more commonly associated with poetry, they can also be found in prose.

  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

In Charles Dickens’ novel, the phrase “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is repeated throughout the text, highlighting the contrasts and contradictions of the period in which the story takes place.

  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

In the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, the refrain “So it goes” appears frequently, always following a mention of death or destruction. This repetition serves to emphasize the indifferent and continuous nature of time and life.

Refrains can also be used in speeches to drive home a particular message or emphasize a theme.

  • I Have a Dream Speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

One famous example is Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, in which the titular phrase serves as a refrain, expressing the speaker’s vision for a just and equal society.

In summary, refrains serve a crucial role in both poetry and prose, as they can add emphasis, create rhythm, or enhance a specific theme or emotion.

Refrain in Music Composition

Refrains are an integral part of music and songs, serving as a recurring element that adds structure and continuity.

In music composition, a refrain is a repeated line or section within a piece that often functions as a hook, capturing the listener’s attention. They help:

  • Maintain a consistent theme.
  • Create a sense of familiarity.
  • Make the song more cohesive.

In many popular songs, the refrain is often found in the chorus, which is the part of the song that listeners can easily sing along to and remember. The repetition of the refrain typically coincides with the music’s peak emotional intensity, which can heighten its impact and memorability.

Examples of refrains in popular music include:

  • Hey Jude by The Beatles, with the refrain line Na-na-na na-na-na-na.”
  • Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond, featuring the refrain Sweet Caroline, ba-ba-ba.”

In more classical compositions, refrains provide structure by reiterating a central theme or motif — a recurring musical or lyrical idea that binds the work together. This can be seen in various forms, such as:

  • Rondos, where a main theme alternates with contrasting sections (e.g., ABACA, ABACABA).
  • Passacaglias, which involve a set of variations over a repeated bass line or chord progression.
  • Ritornellos, commonly found in Baroque concertos and operas, where an instrumental ensemble repeats a theme between vocal or solo passages.

To sum it up, refrains play an essential role in creating structure, familiarity, and emotional impact in music compositions across genres.

How to Identify a Refrain in a Song or Poem

Identifying a refrain in a song or poem can be done by following these simple steps:

Step 1: Read or Listen to the Piece Thoroughly

To start, read or listen to the entire song or poem more than once. This will give you a general understanding of the work and its structure.

Step 2: Look for Repetition

A refrain is usually a repeated line, phrase, or group of lines throughout the work. So, pay close attention to the parts of the song or poem that are repeated.

Step 3: Ask Yourself if the Repetition Serves a Purpose

A refrain typically has a purpose within the piece, such as emphasizing a theme or creating a sense of unity. If you find that the repetition is intentional and serves a specific function, this is likely a refrain.

Step 4: Examine the Structure

Refrains often come at the end of a stanza or a verse, with a consistent placement within the work. Check if the repeated lines occupy the same position.

Here’s a table to help you compare the characteristics that indicate a refrain:

CharacteristicsRefrainNon-Refrain Repetition
PurposeServes a specific function within the work (theme, unity)Random repetition for effect or unintentional pattern
PositionConsistently placed within the structure of the pieceInconsistent positioning throughout the work
FrequencyRepeated multiple timesOccurs less frequently or only once

By following these steps and comparing the characteristics of potential refrains with the table provided, readers and listeners should be able to identify refrains within songs or poems efficiently.

Tips for Creating Effective Refrains

When writing a song or poem, incorporating a refrain can add structure and help convey the main message. Here are some tips for crafting impactful refrains:

Tip 1: Focus on Repetition

The essence of a refrain is repetition, so emphasize the key ideas or themes by reiterating them. This helps to reinforce the message and make it memorable for the audience.

Tip 2: Keep It Simple

Avoid using complex language or intricate phrasing in the refrain. The goal is to create a catchy and engaging section that is easy to remember and sing along with. Stick to simple vocabulary and straightforward phrasing.

Select memorable, emotionally resonant words or phrases that can subtly reinforce the theme or mood of your piece. Keep in mind that a powerful refrain resonates with readers, compelling them to ponder its significance.

Tip 3: Maintain Consistency

While refrains are repetitive, ensure that they still fit seamlessly within the overall structure and narrative of the piece. Consistency in tone, style, and topic will contribute to a cohesive and engaging final product.

Tip 4: Choose a Strategic Placement

Place the refrain strategically within the song or poem to generate maximum impact. Typically, a refrain is placed at the end of a verse or stanza, but it can also be incorporated in other ways, such as in the middle or as a bridge.

Experiment with the position of your refrain until you find its perfect spot. Remember, a refrain can span from a single word to a couple of sentences.

Tip 5: Harness Musical Elements

If the refrain is part of a song, use musical elements to further emphasize the key messages and generate emotion. Experiment with melody, rhythm, and instrumentation to create a compelling and memorable refrain.

By incorporating these tips, a writer can create an effective and engaging refrain that contributes to the success of their song or poem.

Editing and Refining a Refrain

Editing and refining a refrain are vital steps in polishing your writing. Keep the following considerations in mind:

  • Test the refrain’s effectiveness by reading it out loud.
  • Confirm that the refrain’s repetition enhances, rather than detracts, from your work.
  • Ensure the refrain maintains a clear connection to your text’s overall theme or message.
Did You Know? Famous songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen was known for his painstaking process of refining lyrics and refrains. His iconic song Hallelujah was said to have initially consisted of around 80 verses before Cohen painstakingly chose the most resonant lines to form the final version.

Refrain Usage in Language and Culture

Language and culture are closely intertwined, and the term “refrain” has its unique usage in both. This section will explore how “refrain” is used as a verb and other linguistic functions it plays.

Refrain as a Verb

In its capacity as a verb, “refrain” denotes self-restraint or abstention from a particular action or behavior. People often employ this term to demonstrate self-control, as in the sentence:

"She decided to refrain from eating chocolate during her diet." 

This usage is prevalent in everyday conversations.

Refrain in Idiomatic Expressions

The term can be found in idioms such as:

  • Refrain from judgment” — withholding judgment or opinion until all the facts are known.
  • “To refrain from” — to abstain or hold back from an action.

In both language and culture, refrain holds a significant place, taking on various roles and enriching communication. From its use as a verb to its presence in idioms and literary works, the versatility of refrain is evident, making it an essential component of the linguistic landscape.

Relevance of Refrains in Communication

Refrains play a significant role in augmenting the effectiveness of communication. They help in reinforcing the central message of a piece and making it more memorable for the audience.

Additionally, refrains assist in creating emotional connections by evoking specific feelings through their repetitive nature.

In the realm of poetry and music, refrains serve as a foundation for conveying a theme or emotion. By repeatedly emphasizing particular lines or phrases, refrains allow the audience to become familiar with the core message while also providing a sense of structure and rhythm.

Here’s an example of a refrain in a well-known song, This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie:

"This land is your land, this land is my land"

Refrains in speeches and public addresses can also prove to be effective communication tools. They facilitate audience engagement by reinforcing key points and providing a memorable takeaway for listeners.

Some benefits of using refrains in communication include:

  • Memorability: Refrains enhance recall by providing a structured and succinct message.
  • Emotional connection: Repetition of specific phrases can evoke emotions, enriching the audience’s experience.
  • Clarity: Refrains help deliver a clear message by emphasizing key points.

In advertising and branding, refrains can be a crucial component of establishing a memorable message. Repeated catchphrases in advertisements or brand slogans ensure that the audience associates the phrase with the particular product or company.

Consequently, this familiarity and repetition may influence the consumer’s choice in the marketplace.

It is essential to strike a balance when utilizing refrains in communication. Although they have numerous advantages, overuse of refrains can:

  • Lead to a reduction in their impact
  • Result in annoyance for the audience.

Therefore, employing refrains strategically and with consideration for context is paramount to their success in enhancing communication.

Related Terms and Concepts


Refrainment is a term that refers to the act of restraining, holding back, or avoiding certain actions or behaviors. In the context of literature and music, it can refer to the deliberate decision to not repeat a specific phrase or line within the work.

Refrainment can be observed in various forms of art, serving multiple purposes:

  • It may be used to build tension or evoke a specific emotion from the audience.
  • It may also be an artistic choice representing the creator’s restraint or self-discipline.


A refrainer is a person, such as an author, poet, or composer, who employs the use of refrain in their work. The refrainer relies on repeated elements to create patterns, reinforce themes, or establish a sense of rhythm and pace within a piece.

Refrainers can be found in various domains, such as literature, music, and oration. They are well-versed in the art of repetition and they understand how to use it effectively to:

  • Generate specific emotional responses.
  • Emphasize key points or ideas within their work.

Refrains in Technology and Research

Refrains, as a concept, can be extended to the realm of technology and research. In this context, a refrain represents a recurring theme or concept that underlies various advancements and breakthroughs.

Artificial Intelligence: The Refrain of Human-like Intelligence

One example is the ongoing progress in artificial intelligence (AI). The refrain in AI research revolves around the goal of creating machines capable of learning, understanding, and simulating human-like intelligence.

Researchers often revisit the idea of neural networks, deep learning algorithms, and reinforcement learning as they work towards this overarching ambition.

Communication Technology: The Refrain of Seamless Connectivity

Another refrain in technology emerges in the field of communication. Technologies have progressed from wired telephones to wireless mobile devices, allowing people to communicate anytime, anywhere.

Advancements such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G networks consistently revisit the need for seamless connectivity, pushing the envelope on what is possible in communication.

Biotechnology: The Refrain of Improving Human Health

In the area of biotechnology, the refrain revolves around improving human health and well-being. Research advancements in this field work towards a common goal of devising accurate diagnostic tools, developing targeted treatments, and engineering novel drug delivery systems.

Techniques such as CRISPR-based gene editing and stem cell therapy further illustrate this recurring theme within biotechnology.

These examples illustrate how refrains can also be observed in technology and research. They serve as fundamental concepts that inform and guide the development of new ideas and breakthroughs in various scientific fields.

Authoritative Sources and Definitions

Cambridge Dictionary

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “refrain” as a verb, essentially meaning to not do something or hold oneself back. Its example sentence is:

"She refrained from laughing in recognition of the seriousness of the event."

As a noun, the Cambridge Dictionary defines “refrain” as a phrase or verse that is often repeated in a song or poem. In this sense, it could be understood as a chorus or a repeated line.

Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press, a reputable academic publishing house, further explores the notion of “refrain”. In their various publications, they discuss the linguistic and literary importance of the “refrain” in poetry, music, and prose.

The Press emphasizes the importance of understanding the use of “refrain” as a mechanism for both creative expression and textual cohesion.


In the realm of music, the term “refrain” is often discussed by licensors in the context of copyright and licensing agreements. Licensors ensure that usage rights for copyrighted pieces, which include refrains, are handled properly.

They provide guidelines for the legal reproduction and distribution of music, including the appropriate use of any refrain or chorus within a song.

Fun Fact: In many popular songs, the refrain or chorus is the most repeated part, accounting for up to 50% of the total lyrics. This emphasizes the power of a well-crafted refrain to engage and resonate with its audience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does every poem or song possess a refrain?

No, the use of a refrain is not mandatory in a poem or song. Many poems and songs do not utilize refrains and instead focus on other techniques to achieve their desired effects.

Can a refrain be a single word?

Yes, a refrain can be as short as a single word. Even a single word, when repeated throughout a piece, can evoke a strong emotional response or emphasize a specific theme.

How can I identify a refrain in a piece of literature?

A refrain is usually easily identifiable due to its repetition and consistent placement, often at the end of stanzas or as a separate line between stanzas.

Additionally, refrains often stand out due to their focus on central themes or emotions within the piece.


Refrains have an enduring power and popularity amongst various forms of literature and music — their charm lies in their ability to evoke emotions and create memorable connections for the audience.

Refrains play a significant role in songwriting and poetry by adding structure and serving as a hook, allowing authors and artists to express their ideas meaningfully and engage the reader or listener effectively. Furthermore, they often carry the central theme or message of the work, making their presence a crucial element in the overall composition.

Understanding refrains can significantly enhance one’s enjoyment and analysis of music and literature. Gaining knowledge of this literary and musical device enables the audience to delve deeper into the creator’s intentions and appreciate the beauty of the art form on a whole new level.

Remember these insights as you continue to explore and delve into the world of music and literature, as the art of the refrain will undoubtedly continue to captivate and enthrall generations to come.

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Jessa Claire is a registered healthcare provider. Music lover. Daydreamer. Thalassophile. Foodie. A hardworking Capricorn. Most days, an incurable empath. An old soul. Down-to-earth. Vibrant. When she's not writing, she can be seen relaxing with headphones on or engrossed in her favorite fan fiction book.