What is a Ballad?

Mary Elizabeth

Ballad has several meanings. For one, a ballad is a popular song that often tells a story. These ballads are distinguished by such features as few characters, dramatic plots, and may include dialogue, as well as action.

"The Ballad of the Tea Party" is based on the Boston Tea Party.
"The Ballad of the Tea Party" is based on the Boston Tea Party.

There are a number of ballad folk songs, notably “John Henry,” “The Ballad of the Tea Party,” “Edward,” “Lord Randall,” “Barbara Allen,” “Clementine,” “The Fox,” and a number about Robin Hood. It is interesting to note that the ballad about the Boston Tea Party is, and some now think that the ballad of John Henry may also be, based on real events. “Edward,” “Lord Randall,” and “Barbara Allen,” on the other hand, are all tales of tragic fictional romances. “Clementine” is tragic-comic, with a heroine who wears herring boxes for sandals. And “The Fox” and at least some of the Robin Hood ballads, intentionally comic, with “The Fox” featuring talking animals, and a woman who is variously named “Old Mother Flipper Flopper,” “Old Mother Giggle-Gaggle,” or “Old Mother Pitter Patter,” for example.

In opera, ballads are used to recount the backstory of a plot.
In opera, ballads are used to recount the backstory of a plot.

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A specialized meaning of ballad occurs in the context of opera. Ballads were used to recount backstory of the plot. Noted opera ballads occur in Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, The Flying Dutchman in English; Modest Petrovich Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov; Mikhai Ivanovich Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmilla, with a libretto by Valerian Fyodorovich Shirkov; and Otto Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, The Merry Wives of Windsor, in English, with a libretto by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal.

A jazz ballad, on the other hand, is a love song that is slow, sentimental, and intimate. Often in 4/4 and with a 32-bar form. Examples of classic jazz ballads include “It Might As Well Be Spring,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Some Other Spring,” “The Man I Love,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Misty,” and “’Round Midnight.” In popular music, the term ballad has been frequently used to refer to Beatles' songs such as “Yesterday” and “Norwegian Wood.”

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Discussion Comments


@Illych - The idea that ballads are meant to be emotional as opposed to comic like "The Fox" or some of the Robin Hood ballads probably comes from the earlier spelling of the word "ballade", meaning a short, lyrical piece usually for piano. Examples of this form include works by Chopin and Brahms.


I used to think of ballads as emotional solo piano or acoustic guitar songs with lyrics usually about love, which I guess is similar to the jazz interpretation of what a ballad is. I didn't realize whether a song was a ballad or not primarily had to do with the lyrics. I guess the meaning has begun to change over the years to incorporate different forms like rock ballads and the aforementioned example of The Beatles.

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