Understanding Refrain: Usage and Effective Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. What is Refrain in Literature?
  2. How to Identify a Refrain
  3. Why Use Refrain
  4. Refrain in Poetry
  5. Refrain in Songwriting
  6. Effective Examples of Refrain in Literature
  7. Refrain vs Repetition
  8. How to Use Refrain Effectively in Your Own Writing

Imagine you're reading a poem or listening to a song and you notice certain lines or phrases that keep popping up. You might find yourself humming along or even reciting these lines by heart. That's the magic of a literary device known as 'refrain'. In this blog, we'll take a closer look at this technique, breaking down the definition of refrain, its usage, and how it can make a lasting impression. Whether you're a budding writer, a literature student, or just someone who appreciates the beauty of words, this is for you.

What is Refrain in Literature?

So, let's start with the basics: the definition of refrain. A refrain, in literature, is a repeated line, phrase, or group of lines that appears at regular intervals throughout a work, usually at the end of a stanza in poetry or a verse in songs. More than just a catchy line or a memorable phrase, a refrain serves a specific purpose — it emphasizes key themes, stirs up emotional responses, and heightens the rhythmic quality of the piece. Think of it as the chorus of a song; it's the part that sticks with you long after you're done reading or listening.

Now, let's break down the key points about the definition of refrain:

  • Repetition: A refrain is a repeated line or phrase. It's not just a one-time thing; it has to appear multiple times in the work.
  • Regular Intervals: Refrains don't just pop up randomly. They're typically found at set points in the work, such as the end of each stanza in a poem or verse in a song.
  • Emphasis: The purpose of a refrain is to hammer home a key idea or theme. It's not just about sounding good — it's about reinforcing the message of the work.
  • Rhythm: Refrains add a rhythmic quality to the work. Like the beat of a drum, they give the piece a steady rhythm that can make it more engaging and memorable.

So, if you see a line or phrase that keeps showing up in a work of literature, chances are it's a refrain. It's a simple tool, but when used effectively, it can have a powerful impact.

How to Identify a Refrain

Now that you have the definition of refrain under your belt, the next step is to learn how to spot it in literature. It's not always as straightforward as you might think, but don't worry. Here are some tips to help you identify a refrain:

  • Look for Repetition: The first clue to identifying a refrain is repetition. If a line or phrase appears more than once, especially at regular intervals, it's likely a refrain.
  • Check the Structure: Refrains often appear at specific structural points in a work, such as the end of each stanza in a poem or the chorus in a song. Keep an eye out for these patterns.
  • Listen to the Rhythm: Refrains often have a rhythmic quality to them. If a line or phrase has a distinctive rhythm or melody, it could be a refrain.
  • Consider the Theme: Refrains often emphasize the main theme or message of the work. If a line or phrase seems particularly significant or meaningful, it might be a refrain.

But remember, not all repetition in literature is a refrain. Sometimes a writer will repeat a word or phrase for emphasis, but if it doesn't appear at regular intervals or contribute to the larger theme or rhythm of the work, it's not a refrain. It's just repetition. And that's a topic for another blog.

So there you have it. With these tips in hand, you are now better equipped to identify a refrain when you come across one. Happy reading, and may your newfound knowledge of refrains enrich your literary experience!

Why Use Refrain

Great, now you can spot a refrain in literature, but you might be wondering: Why do authors use refrains? What's the point?

Well, let me tell you, the use of refrains is a powerful tool in any writer's kit. Here's why:

  • Creates Rhythm: Just like a catchy beat in your favorite song, a refrain can create a rhythm in literature that carries you through the text. It's like the heartbeat of the piece, giving it life and energy.
  • Builds Anticipation: Ever noticed how waiting for the chorus of a song can build excitement? The same goes for refrains in literature. They create a sense of anticipation, keeping readers hooked.
  • Emphasizes Theme: By repeating key phrases or ideas, refrains drive home the main theme or message of the piece. It's a gentle reminder of what's truly important in the text.
  • Enhances Memory: Remember when your sixth-grade teacher made you repeat the definition of refrain over and over until it stuck? That's the power of repetition. A refrain helps readers remember key points.

So, whether you're reading a classic novel or penning your own poem, understanding why authors use refrains will give you a deeper appreciation of their craft. Plus, if you ever decide to try your hand at writing, knowing how to use a refrain effectively can really boost your work.

But remember, like any tool, the key to using refrains effectively is balance. Too little, and its impact might be lost. Too much, and it can become annoying rather than effective. The best writers know how to use refrains just right to create a memorable reading experience. Now, isn't that a skill worth learning?

Refrain in Poetry

Now that we've got a solid understanding of what a refrain is and why it's used, let's take a closer look at how it functions in poetry. It's in poems, after all, where the use of refrain is most common.

Just think about some of the poems you've read. Chances are, you can recall a line or two that kept coming back, kind of like an old friend. That's a refrain doing its magic.

So, how does the refrain work its charm in poetry? Let's break it down:

  • Creates a Resonating Sound: Poetry is meant to be heard, not just read. The repeated lines of a refrain add a musical quality to the poem, making it more enjoyable to listen to.
  • Builds Emotional Intensity: The use of refrain in a poem can be like a crescendo in a symphony, gradually building emotional intensity. Each repetition of the refrain can stir deeper feelings in the reader.
  • Provides Structure: A refrain can serve as a structuring device in a poem, providing a sense of order and coherence. Like the repeated patterns in a tapestry, a refrain can bring unity to a poem.

From sonnets to free verse, refrains have been used in poetry for centuries to add depth and impact. So, the next time you read a poem, look out for the refrain. It might just change the way you see the poem. And who knows, it might even inspire you to write a poem of your own!

Refrain in Songwriting

Switching gears to music, let's talk about refrain in songwriting. If you love music like I do, you've probably found yourself humming a catchy line from a song that just won't leave your head. More often than not, that irresistible line is a refrain.

In songs, the refrain often plays a role similar to that in poetry. But there are a few key aspects that make it unique:

  • Sticks in the Mind: Ever wondered why you remember the lyrics of the chorus more than the verses? That's because the chorus, which often contains the refrain, is designed to be memorable. It's the part of the song that listeners tend to recall and sing along to.
  • Conveys the Central Theme: In most songs, the refrain encapsulates the main theme or message. It's like the heart of the song, pumping life into every verse.
  • Invites Participation: At concerts, when the refrain kicks in, you'll see the crowd joining in, singing at the top of their lungs. That's the power of a well-crafted refrain— it can turn a passive listener into an active participant.

So, whether you're an aspiring songwriter or a music lover, appreciating the role of the refrain can deepen your understanding of songs. And if you're ever stuck writing a song, remember—the refrain could be your golden ticket to creating a hit!

Effective Examples of Refrain in Literature

Now that we've got a clear definition of refrain, let's dive into some examples in literature. Knowing how others have used this tool will surely help you use it even better. Ready? Let's roll!

Example 1: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven"

Who could forget the haunting refrain in Poe's "The Raven"? The line "Quoth the Raven 'Nevermore'" is repeated throughout the poem, creating a chilling effect that ramps up the suspense like a telltale heartbeat under the floorboards.

Example 2: Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech

Not confined to poetry and song, refrain can be a powerful tool in speeches. The repeated line "I have a dream" in Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic speech is a classic example. This refrain emphasized his vision and made his speech unforgettable, helping to ignite a movement for equality.

Example 3: Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Robert Frost uses refrain masterfully in his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". The final lines "And miles to go before I sleep" are repeated, adding a sense of weariness and duty to the quiet beauty of the snowy scene.

These examples highlight how refrain can create emphasis, build suspense, add rhythm, and enhance the emotional impact of a piece. And remember, the next time you read a poem or listen to a speech, keep an ear out for the refrain. You might just find it's the key to unlocking the deeper meaning of the work.

Refrain vs Repetition

In the world of writing, refrain and repetition are two terms that often get mixed up. Although they might seem similar, they're not quite the same. It’s like comparing apples to oranges—both are fruits, but they have different flavors, textures, and colors. So, what's the difference between refrain and repetition?

Refrain: As we've already established, a refrain refers to a line, a set of lines or a phrase that is repeated at regular intervals in a piece of literature, usually at the end of a stanza in a poem or a verse in a song. Think of it as the chorus of a song—it pops up again and again. The repeated lines in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" ("Quoth the Raven 'Nevermore'") is a classic example of a refrain.

Repetition: On the other hand, repetition involves repeating the same word, phrase, or sentence in a piece of writing. It's more about re-using specific words or phrases to make a point or emphasize an idea. For instance, if you've ever read "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe, you'll notice the repetition of the word "heartbeat" throughout the story.

So, while both refrain and repetition involve repeating elements in a piece of writing, they're used in different ways. A refrain is a repeating chunk of text that shows up at regular intervals—like a chorus—while repetition is more about sprinkling the same word or phrase throughout the text. Keep this distinction in mind as you explore the use of refrain in your own writing. It could make all the difference in how your work is received.

How to Use Refrain Effectively in Your Own Writing

Now that you've got a clear understanding of the definition of refrain, it's time to explore how you can weave this powerful technique into your own writing. Whether you're penning a poem, composing a song, or even writing a story, knowing how to use refrain effectively can add rhythm and drive your point home. So, how can you make this work?

  1. Choose the Right Phrase: Your refrain is going to be repeated multiple times, so make sure it's something worth repeating! The phrase should be memorable, impactful, and relevant to the rest of the work. It's like hitting the replay button on your favorite part of a song—you want it to be something that will stick in the reader's mind.
  2. Placement Matters: Refrain isn't just about what you say—it's also about where you say it. Typically, refrains appear at the end of stanzas or sections. This placement helps create a rhythm and gives the reader or listener a sense of expectation. But don't be afraid to mix it up! Sometimes, placing the refrain in unexpected places can make it even more impactful.
  3. Don't Overdo It: While a well-placed refrain can be powerful, overusing it can have the opposite effect. If your refrain appears too often, it can lose its impact and even become annoying. Remember, refrain is a spice—not the main dish. Use it to enhance your writing, not overpower it.

Using refrain effectively can elevate your writing and leave a lasting impression on your audience. So, why not give it a try? With a bit of practice, you might just find that refrain becomes a go-to tool in your writing toolbox.

If you want to further enhance your understanding of the creative process and tackle challenges like rejection, we recommend checking out the workshop 'Staying Resilient Through Rejection' by Carlos Neto. This workshop will provide you with valuable insights and advice on how to stay strong and motivated in the face of rejection, which can be especially relevant for writers and artists experimenting with refrain and other literary devices.