Guide: Understanding Ballad Definitions
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. What is a ballad?
  2. How to identify a ballad
  3. Traditional ballads
  4. Literary ballads
  5. Ballads in modern music
  6. Noteworthy ballad examples
  7. How to write a ballad
  8. Why ballads matter in literature

Ever heard a song or read a poem that told a story in such a way that you felt every emotion? Well, you've probably encountered a ballad without even knowing. This guide aims to give you a clear, uncluttered understanding of the definition of ballad. By the end of this read, you'll be able to identify, appreciate, and maybe even write your own ballads!

What is a ballad?

Before we dive into the depths of balladry, let's start with a basic definition of ballad. A ballad is a type of poem or song that tells a story. Now, this might sound super simple, but there's a bit more that goes into a ballad. Here are some key points to remember:

  • Storytelling: Ballads are known for their storytelling abilities. They often narrate tales of love, loss, or adventure, creating a vivid world for the listener or reader.
  • Rhythm and Rhyme: Ballads follow a particular rhythm and rhyme scheme, making them pleasing to the ear and easy to remember. This is why you'll often see ballads in music!
  • Emotion: A key element in the definition of ballad is emotion. Ballads have the power to pull at your heartstrings, whether they're telling a tragic love story or a heroic tale.

Historically, people shared ballads orally, passing them down from generation to generation. This tradition is why many of the oldest ballads have unknown authors. Today, we find ballads in many forms, from traditional and literary ballads to those in modern music.

If you're thinking, "This sounds like a lot to remember," don't worry. I promise you, by the time we're done, you'll have a solid grasp of the definition of ballad. And who knows, you might even start recognizing ballads in your favorite songs or poems!

How to identify a ballad

So, how do you take this definition of ballad and apply it to identify a ballad in the wild? Let's break it down into a few easy steps.

  1. Look for a Story: Remember, at its heart, a ballad is a narrative. If the poem or song you're examining tells a story, you're on the right track.
  2. Check the Structure: Ballads often have verses or stanzas of four lines (also known as quatrains). They usually follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB or ABCB. Spotting these patterns can help you identify a ballad.
  3. Feel the Rhythm: Ballads typically have a regular, rhythmic pattern. In many cases, you might notice a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that gives the ballad a distinctive beat.
  4. Spot the Repetition: Repetition is a common feature in ballads. It could be a repeated phrase, line, or entire stanza. This repetition often emphasizes key points in the story.

One thing to note is that not all ballads strictly adhere to these rules. Over time, the form has evolved and adapted, especially in modern music. So, while these guidelines will help you identify a traditional ballad, there can be some exceptions.

So, there you have it—your personal checklist for identifying a ballad! Keep these pointers in mind, and you’ll be spotting ballads left and right. And who knows, understanding the definition of ballad could change the way you listen to your favorite songs or read your favorite poems.

Traditional Ballads

Now that we've got the basics covered, let's dive deeper into the world of traditional ballads. When we talk about traditional ballads, we're referring to the old, narrative songs that originated from the folk culture of the British Isles. Want to know more about them? Let's explore.

  1. The Roots: Traditional ballads, also known as folk or popular ballads, were passed down through generations, mainly through oral tradition. They emerged around the late medieval period and have been an integral part of the folk literature ever since.
  2. The Themes: These ballads often portray stories of love, death, the supernatural, or exciting adventures. They can be tragic, romantic, heroic, or even humorous. They truly capture the essence of human emotions and experiences.
  3. The Style: Traditional ballads usually have a simple and direct style. The language is straightforward, making the story easy to understand. They also use common, everyday words to help the listener or reader connect with the story.
  4. The Characters: Characters in traditional ballads are often larger than life. They could be noble knights, cunning outlaws, or beautiful damsels. Despite the extraordinary circumstances, their emotions and reactions remain very human, making the ballads relatable to the audience.

Traditional ballads, with their rich narratives and emotive language, have stood the test of time. They continue to captivate audiences, and their influence can be seen in many contemporary forms of storytelling. So, next time you come across a narrative song or poem, you might just be able to uncover its roots in traditional ballads. And isn't that a cool addition to your understanding of the definition of ballad?

Literary Ballads

Let's move forward in our journey to understanding the definition of ballad. We've just explored the realm of traditional ballads, now it's time to turn our attention to their literary counterparts, which are, in many ways, quite different.

  1. Literary Ballads and Authors: Unlike traditional ballads that are born from the collective creativity of folk culture, literary ballads are the work of known authors, often celebrated poets. These authors took inspiration from the format of traditional ballads, but added their own twist.
  2. Themes and Language: Literary ballads can tackle a wide range of themes, from love and loss to social commentary. They often showcase the author's unique style and can employ more complex language and sophisticated literary devices. Does this make them less accessible than traditional ballads? Not necessarily, but it does add an extra layer to the definition of ballad.
  3. Period of Popularity: The popularity of literary ballads peaked during the Romantic period, with poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats penning some of the most famous examples. However, they continue to be written and enjoyed today.
  4. Influence: Literary ballads have had a profound influence on poetry and songwriting, shaping the landscape of creative expression in unique ways.

In essence, literary ballads are a vibrant evolution of the traditional form. They allow authors to explore complex themes while maintaining the engaging narrative style that defines ballads. So, if you encounter a ballad with a known author, chances are it's a literary ballad. And now, you have the knowledge to appreciate it even more!

Ballads in Modern Music

Now that we've traversed the domains of traditional and literary ballads, let's tune into the melodies of modern music. You might be asking yourself, "Do ballads still exist today?" The answer is a resounding yes! The modern definition of ballad has broadened to include popular music genres, from pop and rock to country and R&B. Here's what you need to know:

  1. Emotional Storytelling: Much like their historical counterparts, modern ballads are all about telling emotional stories. Whether it's a heart-wrenching tale of lost love or an uplifting narrative of triumph, the key element is the evocative narrative that tugs at the heartstrings.
  2. Slow Tempo: Ever noticed how ballads are usually slower songs? This isn't a coincidence. The slow tempo allows the story and the emotions to take center stage, creating a deep connection between the singer and the listener.
  3. Instrumentation: While modern ballads can feature a wide range of instruments, many opt for a stripped-back approach that emphasizes the vocals and the lyrics.
  4. Examples: From Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" to Adele's "Someone Like You", there are countless examples of modern ballads that have left their mark on popular culture.

So next time when you hear a slow, emotive song on the radio, take a moment to appreciate the fact that you're listening to a modern interpretation of a centuries-old tradition. It's a testament to the enduring appeal of ballads and their ability to resonate with audiences across time and genres.

Noteworthy Ballad Examples

As we've explored the definition of ballad in various forms, it's clear that ballads have been a big part of our cultural fabric for centuries. Let's take a look at a few noteworthy examples that have stood the test of time—each one a shining star in the vast galaxy of ballads.

  1. "Scarborough Fair": This English traditional ballad dates back to the late Middle Ages. With its haunting melody and cryptic lyrics, it beautifully encapsulates the mysterious and magical qualities often associated with traditional ballads.
  2. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner": Penned by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, this literary ballad is a mariner's tale of a disastrous sea journey. It showcases the narrative power and rhythmic beauty of the ballad form in literature.
  3. "Yesterday" by The Beatles: Often cited as one of the greatest ballads in pop music, "Yesterday" is a perfect example of the emotional depth and simplicity that modern ballads can achieve.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. From forgotten medieval tales to chart-topping hits, the world of ballads is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. So why not embark on your own ballad exploration journey? You might just find a new favorite song or poem along the way.

How to Write a Ballad

Now that we've understood the definition of a ballad and looked at some classic examples, you may be curious about writing your own. It's not as tricky as it sounds! Here's a straightforward, step-by-step guide to help you get started:

  1. Choose Your Story: Remember, a ballad is a song that tells a story. It could be anything—a heroic adventure, a tragic love story, or even an everyday event. So, start by picking a story you want to tell.
  2. Set the Rhyme Scheme: Ballads typically have a rhyme scheme. The most common one is ABAB or ABCB. Decide on your rhyme scheme and try to stick to it through your ballad.
  3. Use Repetition: One of the defining features of a ballad is repetition. This could be a repeated line, phrase, or an entire stanza. Use this tool to emphasize key points in your story.
  4. Keep it Simple: Ballads are known for their simplicity. Avoid complicated words or complex sentence structures. The beauty of a ballad lies in its ability to convey deep emotions in simple words.

Writing a ballad can be a fun and rewarding experience. It's a chance to tell a story your way, using the rhythm and rhyme of a ballad. So, grab a pen and paper or sit in front of your computer, and let your creativity flow. Who knows, you might just pen the next big hit!

Why Ballads Matter in Literature

Maybe you've wondered, "Why are we even talking about ballads? Do they still matter?" Let me tell you — they do! And here's why:

  1. Telling Stories: From the beginning of time, humans have loved stories. Ballads are just another way to tell a story. They can be fun, tragic, heroic, or even mundane. But each one has a story to tell, which makes them a powerful tool in literature.
  2. Emotional Connection: Ballads have a unique way of connecting with the reader or listener. Their simple language and repetitive patterns make them easy to understand and remember. This creates a strong emotional connection that can last a lifetime.
  3. Historical Record: Many traditional ballads were written to record historical events. They serve as a snapshot of the past, preserving important historical moments in a memorable and engaging way.
  4. Cultural Influence: Every culture has its own form of ballads. They play an important role in defining and preserving cultural identity. By studying ballads, we can learn a lot about different cultures and their histories.

So, the next time you come across a ballad in a book or hear one in a song, remember — it's more than just a collection of words. It's a story, an emotion, a piece of history, and a slice of culture. That's the power and importance of ballads in literature!

If you're interested in learning more about ballads and how storytelling plays an essential role in songwriting, check out the workshop called 'Storytelling as a Songwriter' by Gianna Adams. This workshop will provide you with valuable insights and techniques on how to craft captivating stories through your songs, enhancing your skills as a songwriter.