Chorus vs Refrain vs Hook: What’s the Difference Between Them?
Repetition is an essential aspect of music. While song’s don’t have to include a chorus or a hook, their use is ideal for improving a track’s catchiness. It’s been proven by research that repetition and rhyme can aid in memorization. And while too much of a sugary sweet thing can spoil the whole dish, a sensible slew of choruses or hooks can make your song into a delectable treat for the ears.
But how do you know what kind of repeats you should use? What’s the difference between a chorus and a hook? Are they different names for the same thing? In this article, I’ll teach you how to spot each kind of lyrical reiteration and give some tips on when to employ them in your own songs.
There are numerous types of repeating structures common to music. The most popular of these are: chorus, refrain, and hook. These terms have some overlap, and you may hear some people use them interchangeably. Songwriters are bound to argue about the specific requirements for each. So keep in mind that these definitions are meant to help you differentiate between the terms for your own songwriting experience. Music is subjective, and terms like these are primarily just tools for structuring and organizing your compositions. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s dive into the terms.
What is a Chorus?
Chorus – a line or set of lines that repeat throughout a song and form their own stanza, usually between verses. It often contrasts with verses musically and/or dynamically: a chorus may have a bigger and fuller sound than a verse, with more voices or more instrumentation than appears in other sections of the song. The word itself comes from an ancient Greek word that means “a choir”.
What is a Refrain?
Refrain (Modern) – very similar to the chorus, the refrain is also a line or set of lines that repeat. However melodically speaking, a refrain often has a stripped down or restrained sound compared to other sections of the song—such as the verses or a bridge. While a chorus is usually thought to get louder than the verses, a refrain gets quieter. A contrast in dynamics still occurs, but whereas the big chorus can easily build up an anthem-like or group chant feeling, the refrain will make the repeating motif sound more intimate.
The words “chorus” and “refrain” can and are used interchangeably to mean the same thing, but there is a different expectation of execution between them: when writing down my lyrics, I use the term “refrain” if I intend for the section to sound more hushed and the term “chorus” if I intend it to sound bigger.
Refrain (Traditional/Burden) – While today, the words “chorus” and “refrain” are construed to mean the same thing, this is not always the case. Some composers will argue that the refrain should only refer to a short phrase that appears at the end of every verse, rather than appear as it’s own full-fledged section of the song. In folk music, this repeated phrase is known as a burden.
Because music can be quite subjective and abstract, there will always be a disagreement on how certain words should be used in connection to composition. I personally use the term refrain in the “modern” sense as described in the last section, and use the next term to describe a modern version of a burden…
What is a Hook?
Hook – any musical or lyrical idea that is repeated throughout the song without being it’s only distinct section; it may repeat at the end of a verse or between lines. A hook does not have to be a full idea, but rather a motif that ties the verses and/or instrumental parts together. A hook is like the modern pop/hip hop version of the bardic burden, but can also act like a leitmotif—a recurring musical theme that appears throughout a full orchestral movement or composition (common in classical music).
Sometimes a hook will occur throughout the verses (like a burden) as an anchor line that ties the whole song together. An example of this can be found in many genres, such as: “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash (Country), “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift (Pop), “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. (Rock), or even the memetic internet classic “Everyday Normal Guy 2” by Jon Lajoie (Rap).
Rather than used as a lyrical line, a hook can also be a purely instrumental melody played throughout the track. A song may have a chorus, but sometimes the instrumental hook is just as iconic, if not more. It may not have words but will be instantly recognizable. Some example would include the guitar riff at the beginning of “Back in Black” by AC/DC, the violins at the start of “Toxic” by Britney Spears, or the titular trumpet section in “Trumpets” by Jason Derulo.
When Should I Use a Chorus?
A chorus is most commonly used in radio-format songs of the rock, pop, and rap genres. It is the go-to method of repetition. If you want to write a song that people will feel compelled to sing along with, you should probably include a full chorus rather than a hook or a burden. Also, repeat your chorus at least two but no more than four times in the song.
When Should I Use a Hook Instead?
A hook is best used in rap songs that don’t include a guest vocalist. If you are a rapper and prefer not to sing in your tracks, try using a melodic hook instead to bring the verses together. If you are writing an art piece or folk song, give burden refrains a go.
Choruses, refrains, and hooks all play a similar purpose in a song: they provide a repetitive and memorable way for fans to recall your song. While they vary in their application, all three section types play a part in bolstering the catchiness of a track. While a song does not need a chorus to work, any good song should at least employ some melodic motif than make it easy to recall in the minds of listeners.
Other Articles to Consider
If you found this guide useful, here are a few more articles to consider reading: