Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is a Chorus?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 13, 2019 • 5 min read

The most successful songs in pop, rock, R&B, country, hip hop, reggae, and countless other genres tend to share a common trait: catchy, irresistible music that latches itself onto a listener’s consciousness and does not let go. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a love song or a hard rocking anthem: any section of a song can feature catchy hooks, whether it’s the intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, or coda. However, most songwriters save their finest musical phrases for one particular part of a song: the chorus.

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What Is a Chorus in Music?

In music, a chorus is a repeated section that contains the primary musical and lyrical motifs of the song. In common song structures, it’s typically repeated at least twice.

What’s The Difference Between a Chorus and a Refrain?

In music, there is no difference between the terms “chorus” and “refrain.” Both refer to a repeated section of a song that typically contains its central musical and lyrical motifs. As such, songwriters and band directors will use the terms interchangeably, although the word “chorus” tends to be more common in discussions among musicians.

How Is a Chorus Used in Songs?

Pop songs and rock songs feature choruses in a variety of spots within the song structure. Here are a few examples of where the chorus fits into a song’s structure:

  • At the very beginning of the song. In the AABA song form, the A section is considered the chorus, and it’s the first principle melody that listeners hear. The 32-bar AABA form was particularly popular during the first part of the twentieth century when most pop songs debuted as show tunes. One example is “I Got Rhythm” by George & Ira Gershwin, which debuted in the Broadway show Girl Crazy and has gone on to be one of the great standards of jazz music. (Note that “I Got Rhythm” was originally a 34-bar song but is typically reduced to 32 bars in jazz performances.)
  • After the first verse. Many songs employ an ABAB form, where the A section represents a verse and the B section represents the chorus. Think of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” (famously covered by the likes of Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright), which begins with the verse, “Well I heard there was a sacred chord…” which is followed by a chorus. The form repeats for a long time—Cohen wrote 80 verses—but is almost always shortened in performance. Other examples include “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen and “Alive” by Pearl Jam. The ABAB format is extremely popular in hip hop, where rapped verses give way to sung choruses, which in turn give way to the next rapped verse. In hip hop, the verse and chorus music is often the same (think “California Love” by 2Pac or “Regulate” by Warren G feat. Nate Dogg), but the differences in vocal melody produce distinct sections.
  • Before a verse, but alternating back and forth. Sometimes songwriters invert the ABAB form. The Beatles’ “She Said She Said” contains two sections that alternate back and forth, but the first of these sections is clearly the chorus. The song “Dancing Queen” by ABBA also follows this technique.
  • After a pre-chorus. Many songwriters interpolate an additional section, called the pre-chorus, between the verse and the chorus. In the Oasis song “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” the verse and the chorus actually have the same chord progression, albeit with very different vocal melodies. They are broken up with a pre-chorus— “So I start a revolution from my bed…”—with a different progression, which creates natural propulsive motion into the anthemic refrain of “So Sally can wait…”
  • Saved for the very end of the song. Some songwriters like to save the chorus for the very end of the song. If you’re a listener already familiar with the song, you know the chorus is coming. The wait can be excruciating, but the payoff is beautiful. Paul McCartney is a noted practitioner of this technique, as evidenced in the song “Hey Jude.” Journey’s early hit “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’” is another touchstone.
  • Throughout the entire song. The AAA song format contains a single musical section repeated many times. Some musical theorists call this single A section a chorus, and others call it a verse. Either way, it comprises the entire song, albeit with variations each time it’s repeated. Examples include Bob Dylan’s “Standing in the Doorway” and Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote.”

What Happens in the Final Chorus of a Song?

The final chorus of a song tends to embellish on prior choruses heard earlier in the song. Often, this final chorus will be the coda to a song, appearing after a bridge in a verse/chorus/bridge format.

These final choruses often have multiple repeats, sometimes with the instrumental tracks dropping off, leading to a cathartic finale. On some recordings, a final chorus will repeat and steadily fade into silence, signifying the end of the song. This was a favored technique of producer Phil Spector, who crafted many hits with fade-out choruses, such as “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes.

What Are the Different Types of Choruses?

In the performing arts, the definition of chorus varies widely.

  • A chorus can be a musical performance ensemble, like a group of singers. These groups appear throughout a great variety of musical genres. Religious music has featured choruses for millennia—from Gregorian chant to Bach’s liturgical chorales to twentieth and twenty-first-century gospel choirs. Some pop groups feature a chorus section of background singers to support the primary vocalist—think of the Supremes backing Diana Ross or the Vandellas backing Martha Reeves. Classical music is also filled with choruses, such as the enormous vocal chorus required to perform Gustav Mahler’s 8th symphony, nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand.”
  • In drama and theater, a chorus refers to otherwise unnamed characters who perform in the play. These groups of people sometimes speak in unison, or sometimes their lines are divided among individuals. This dates back to the theaters of ancient Greece. In Greek drama, choruses often provided commentary on the action at hand—warning the lead characters of their potentially self-destructive behavior or providing the perspective of common people in society.
  • In musical theater, a chorus combines the two aforementioned chorus styles. In the Broadway theaters of New York, many shows feature vocal ensembles who sing along in musical numbers but also provide a degree of perspective and commentary in the lyrics they sing. In this way, they represent both the ancient Greek and contemporary manifestation of a chorus.