Ah, the ballad. You know it. You love it. You’re humming it right now (or maybe that’s just us). But do you really know what a ballad is? Sure, you might have heard someone mention it in the same breath as a love song, but there’s so much more to this musical genre than just sappy lyrics and slow guitar strums.
In this post, we’re going to explore the ins and outs of ballads – what they are, where they come from, and why they’re still making our hearts swell to this day. Let’s jump in.
Definition of a Ballad
So, what exactly is a ballad? Well, put simply, a ballad is a song that tells a story through music and lyrics. And it’s the story that sets them apart from other forms of music.
Unlike most modern pop songs that may focus on a catchy chorus or danceable beat, ballads are meant to take the listener on a journey.
They often feature a slow, simple, repetitive melody that allows the lyrics to take center stage and convey a message.
This can be seen in classic ballads like “Scarborough Fair” and “Danny Boy,” as well as modern hits like Adele’s “Someone Like You” and Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph.”
History of the Ballad
Ballads have been around for centuries, and their origins are as diverse as the songs themselves. But, the earliest forms of ballads appear to have their origin in Scandinavia as early as the 13th and 14th centuries.
They were often performed by traveling bards who would roam from town to town, sharing their stories with audiences along the way.
William Langland’s Piers Plowman references ballads being sung about Robin Hood in the late 14th century, and Wynkyn de Worde produced a detailed collection of Robin Hood ballads which is the oldest known reference, from about 1495.
In those days, ballads were often passed down orally and told stories of historical events, supernatural beings, and tragic love affairs. As they evolved over time, they became more structured and were eventually printed on broadsheets and sold on the streets. This allowed them to reach a wider audience and become a popular form of entertainment.
The modern derivation of the word ballad is from the French phrase “chanson balladée” or “ballade.” which translates as “dancing song.” And that’s how they started out. As songs to dance to. And dance they did!
Fast forward to today, and ballads continue to be a beloved genre of music, with modern artists putting their own spin on the classic format.
Although the medium may have changed over time, the power and emotional resonance of a well-crafted ballad remain as strong and as popular as ever.
Characteristics of a Ballad
Does a ballad have to be a story? Does it have to be slow? Does it have to be sad? What if it’s not about love? Well, there are a few different things that characterize what a ballad is, and below, we’ll discuss a few of the things that make a ballad a ballad.
As we’ve mentioned above, one of the most defining characteristics of a ballad is its storytelling element. Whether it’s a tale of love, loss, adventure, or a dramatic event, they love to bring the listener into their world.
Like all stories, it will typically have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
The melody of a ballad is often simple and straightforward so that one can easily follow it and understand the story it tells. In this way, it can easily be passed down through generations by oral tradition or, in the case of more modern ballads, be easily memorable and catchy.
The melody usually has a slow tempo and is accompanied by simple chord progressions, so the emphasis is on the lyrics and the narrative.
There are also many repetitions with the same simple melody throughout the song. These repetitions reinforce the narrative and help listeners remember the story.
Another important feature of ballads is that they’re typically at a slow tempo. This gives the vocalist more time to again, focus on the story, create an emotive atmosphere and amplify the emotion of the song.
In a faster-paced song, the vocalist may need to sing quickly to keep up with the beat, leaving less time to focus on the nuances of the lyrics. But in a ballad, the slower tempo gives the vocalist more time to fully express the emotions behind the lyrics, creating a more powerful and meaningful performance.
The slower tempo of ballads also allows the listener to fully immerse themselves in the story being told. The deliberate pace of the song draws the listener in and allows them to focus on the lyrics and the emotions being conveyed. This can make ballads particularly effective at conveying deep, heartfelt emotions such as love, loss, and heartbreak.
Examples of Ballads
Now that we’ve looked at the history and some of the important characteristics, let’s take a look at some of the examples of popular ballads of recent times.
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston
Although originally written and recorded by singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You” gained popularity when it was covered by Whitney Houston for the soundtrack of the 1992 film “The Bodyguard,” in which Houston starred.
Houston’s version of the song became a massive hit, reaching the top of the charts in multiple countries and selling over 20 million copies worldwide. It’s the epitome of a “power ballad” with an epically emotional narrative, incredible vocals, and a moving harmony that makes it one of the most iconic ballads of all time.
“Total Eclipse Of The Heart” by Bonnie Tyler
Another great example of a power ballad is “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” by Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler which was released in 1983 and quickly became a worldwide hit, reaching number one on the charts in several countries.
The song’s lyrics deal with themes of love and heartbreak, and the emotional intensity of the vocals and music made it one of the most enduring ballads of the 1980s.
“My Funny Valentine” by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Next, we have “My Funny Valentine,” which is an excellent example of a jazz ballad due to its timeless melody, emotive lyrics, and enduring popularity.
As a ballad, the song tells a story of flawed love, conveying a bittersweet sentiment that is relatable to many listeners. The song’s chord progression, with its unexpected harmonic shifts, creates a sense of tension and release that enhances the emotional impact of the melody.
It’s a standout example of a ballad that showcases the power of music to convey complex emotions and tell a compelling story.
“More Than Words” By Extreme
Released in 1990, “More Than Words” is a ballad written and performed by the American rock band Extreme.
It’s a great example of a ballad because it tells a simple story with emotional lyrics and a beautiful melody. The stripped-down instrumentation and focus on the vocals allow the emotions of the song to shine through, making it a powerful and memorable ballad.
Ballads have always had a unique way of connecting with people by telling stories that are relatable and emotionally impactful.
Whether it’s the heartache of a lost love, the pain of betrayal, or the triumph of a hero, ballads offer a powerful way to explore the complexities of human emotions and experiences through music.
While the musical style and themes of ballads have certainly evolved over time, their ability to resonate with audiences has remained constant. Today, modern ballads are just as likely to tackle contemporary issues such as social justice, political unrest, or personal struggles as they are to focus on traditional themes of love and loss.
Through the ages, ballads have become an integral part of our cultural heritage, reflecting the hopes, fears, and dreams of people throughout history. From the folk songs of medieval Europe to the modern pop ballads of today, these songs have endured and continued to inspire and captivate audiences around the world.
So, whether you prefer the timeless classics or the latest hits, there’s no denying the power and appeal of a good ballad. For as long as people continue to seek out stories that touch their hearts and souls, the ballad will continue to be an important part of our musical landscape, providing a powerful reminder of our shared humanity and the stories that connect us all.