What Is a Refrain? Exploring Its Use in Poetry & Music

Have you ever noticed in poetry that words repeat? That repetition has a name. It’s called a refrain. See how refrains are used in music and poetry through examples. 

refrain example twinkle, twinkle little starrefrain example twinkle, twinkle little star

What Is Refrain? 

Poetry and music love repetition. When something is repeated, it makes it easier to remember. Think about the song, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. 

Twinkle, twinkle little star

How I wonder what you are

Up above the world so high

Like a diamond in the sky

Twinkle, twinkle little star

The repetition of twinkle, twinkle little star is called a refrain. A refrain literary definition is quite simple. It’s when something in a song or poem repeats. As you can see in the kid’s song, the first and last line are a refrain. 

Elements of Refrains

A refrain can have different elements to it depending on if it is in poetry or music. 

  • Lines: A refrain isn’t just one line, a poem can actually have several lines that repeat in the work.  

  • Intervals: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is a song where the refrain has a regular interval. This is common in poetry and songs. However, not everyone likes to follow rules, so sporadic refrains can be seen as well. 

Chorus vs. Refrain

When it comes to songs, the term refrain might have you instantly going to the chorus of a song. A chorus is a refrain, but not all refrains are choruses. That’s not confusing, is it? There is a bit of reasoning behind it. 

Refrains can happen at any point in a song or poem; they are just repeated lines. However, a chorus is a special type of refrain that consists of repeated lines set to a specific melody. It’s those lines of your song that are easy to remember because they are typically repeated 3 or 4 times throughout. Here’s a famous example of a chorus from Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”: 

This is my fight song

Take back my life song

Prove I'm alright song

My power's turned on

Starting right now I'll be strong

I'll play my fight song

And I don't really care if nobody else believes

'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me

Did you hear the melody in your head? The words and the melody make it memorable.  

Now that you know a bit about refrains, it’s time to see them in action. 

Refrain in Music Examples

If you’ve ever turned on the radio, you’ve heard a refrain. Check out a few refrains happening outside the chorus of a song. 

London Bridge Is Falling Down

London Bridge is falling down

Falling down, falling down

London Bridge is falling down

My fair lady

Build it up with iron bars

Iron bars, iron bars

Build it up with iron bars

My fair lady

Look at all the refrains found in this kids’ song. The repetition with a little tune makes it oh so fun to play… and sing. 

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Summer has come and passed

The innocent can never last

Wake me up when September ends

Like my fathers come to pass

Seven years has gone so fast

Wake me up when September ends

Another famous song example comes from Weezer. In their lyrics, you can see the refrain of wake me up when September ends. Notice it’s a refrain outside of the chorus. 

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

So tell me now, and I won't ask again

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Will you still love me..

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirelles also has a unique refrain outside of the chorus The repetition of the question works to really push the importance of the line. 

Refrain in Poetry Examples

Poetry loves refrains. It’s great for giving the words rhyme.

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know …

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love —

I and my Annabel Lee …

In Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, you can see the repetition of the refrain in the kingdom by the sea. Like most refrains, this repetition along with the rhyme gives the poem a nice rhythm. 

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

In this Frost poem, he is adding emphasis to the line and miles to go before I sleep by making it a refrain. By making the line a refrain, it gives the line impact and importance. 

Dreams by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

As you read through ”Dreams” by Langston Hughes, you can feel the importance of holding on to dreams through the repetition of the line. 

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light…

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In Dylan Thomas’s poem, you have a double refrain happening. Not only do you see the title line repeating but also rage, rage against the dying of the light. The repetition of the two lines adds a sense of urgency to the poem when you read it. 

Wind, Water, Stone by Octavio Paz

Water hollows stone,

wind scatters water,

stone stops the wind.

Water, wind, stone.

Wind carves stone,

stone's a cup of water,

water escapes and is wind.

Stone, wind, water.

Paz’s poem is unique in that it has double refrains, but the refrains are just the same words in a different order. So, it’s like one refrain four times. 

Knowing Your Refrains

A refrain is just repeated lines in poems or songs. They work to add rhythm to the work through repetition. A chorus is a special type of refrain that’s repeated to a specific melody. Now that you know a bit about refrains, check out stanza examples. You might also want to check out a sonnet or two.

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