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In a musical context, let's say musicians talking about present-day pop music (i.e. there is not a real chorus with 40 people singing), do the words “chorus” and “refrain” carry different meanings? Is one more apt than the other?

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See also the brand-new beta: music.stackexchange.com –  Steve Melnikoff May 3 '11 at 20:33

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

According to Ken Stephenson in his What to Listen for in Rock: A Stylistic Analysis, a chorus is a complete section of a song that is repeated, where a refrain is a line or two (often at the end of each verse or the beginning of each chorus) that return throughout the song but don't constitute a separate formal division on their own.

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Honestly, I thought that chorus was more about songs and refrain for poems and similar things.

But, as the OALD states, they're synonyms and they both mean "the part of a song or a poem that is repeated after each verse".

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My experience as a musician of many years, and after attending a number of songwriter camps (which generally recognize current or contemporary usage of terms) taught by professional songwriters is this: A chorus is understood by most to be as identified in answers and comments above, i.e, a repeating and complete section of a song sung by more than one singer, which typically drives the song's theme and/or is a summation of the song's ideas or point. In industry parlance, it's the "hook". A refrain, however, has a bit more malleable definition. While it can be more or less synonymous with a chorus, it generally means one or two repeating "tag lines" after or between verses, or before a chorus. Some songs have no chorus, and thus the tag lines become the repeating theme or hook. A more modern usage describes a repeating refrain happening just before each chorus as a "pre-chorus", although technically this may be an inaccurate usage of either term.

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Chorus would be used more often to a refrain sung by multiple people, a refrain more often refers to a solo.

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Can you provide (reliable) sources? –  Alenanno May 3 '11 at 16:03
The New Oxford American Dictionary states, for chorus: "a part of a song that is repeated after each verse, typically by more than one singer." (emphasis mine). –  James May 3 '11 at 16:10
Well, the dictionary for one- One of the subdefintions of "chorus" is (under "a large ogranized group of singers") "a part of a song that is repeated after each verse, typically by more than one singer. The second definition of "chorus" also shows its origin- the chorus was a large group of performers who would interrupt the main action to summarize and comment on it. The dictionary's listing for "refrain" does not limit the word to only being used for single performers, but originates from the reading of poems, which has traditionally been a solo act. –  matthias May 3 '11 at 16:15
Ok but it's not a necessary feature. Most nowadays choruses are sang by one person, still, they are called chorus. –  Alenanno May 3 '11 at 16:17
The word might be used for solo choruses, but the word still has connotations of multiple singers, presumably due to its other uses. The question is about connotations, after all. –  James May 3 '11 at 16:29

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