What is Ballad?


Ballad is derived from Latin ballare, to dance, and historically it means dancing song; it is associated etymologically with ballet, a form of dance.

A ballad is a form of verse to be sung or recited and characterized by its presentation of a dramatic or exciting episode in simple narrative form.  Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of the British Isles from the later medieval period until the 19th century and used extensively across Europe and later the Americas, Australia and North Africa. Many ballads were written and sold as single sheet broadsides. The form was often used by poets and composers from the 18th century onwards to produce lyrical ballads. In the later 19th century it took on the meaning of a slow form of popular love song and the term is now often used as synonymous with any love song, particularly the pop or rock power ballad.

Most northern and west European ballads are written in ballad stanzas or quatrains (four-line stanzas) of alternating lines of iambic (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables), known as ballad meter. Usually, only the second and fourth line of a quatrain are rhymed (in the scheme a, b, c, b), which has been taken to suggest that, originally, ballads consisted of couplets (two lines) of rhymed verse, each of 14 syllables. As can be seen in this stanza from ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Annet’:

The horse| fair Ann|et rode| upon|
He amb|led like| the wind|,
With sil|ver he| was shod| before, With burn|ing gold| behind|.

However, there is considerable variation on this pattern in almost every respect, including length, number of lines and rhyming scheme, making the strict definition of a ballad extremely difficult. In southern and eastern Europe, and in countries that derive their tradition from them, ballad structure differs significantly, like Spanish romances, which are octo-syllabic and use consonance rather than rhyme. 

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In all traditions most ballads are narrative in nature, with a self-contained story, often concise and relying on imagery, rather than description, which can be tragic, historical, romantic or comic. Another common feature of ballads is repetition, sometimes of fourth lines in succeeding stanzas, as a refrain, sometimes of third and fourth lines of a stanza and sometimes of entire stanzas. 

Types of Ballads

There are two distinct kinds of ballads — the traditional ballad and the literary ballad. The  traditional ballad, popular in England and in Scotland in the 15th century was a specific form of a narrative poem that has a part of the world of folk-song. By the end of the 17th century, the emphasis shifted from narration to music as the prime constituent of the ballad. The traditional ballads deal with episodes from well-known stories tendered impersonally.

The literary ballad which came into vogue at the end of the 18th century and continued to be popular in the 19th century was not set to music. Since the 1950s, there has been a revival of interest in traditional songs, sung by expert performers.

Characteristics / Features of Ballad

The main characteristics of a ballad are :
It is impersonal’. Even if there is an ‘I’, who sings the tale, the speaker addresses us from a perspective outside the action and he comments for our benefit on the character and situation presented.

The ballad is full of refrains. This is known as incremental repetition (a device which repeats what has been said before, sometimes lines, sometimes words). Stock epithets are also often repeated.

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The ballad is remarkable for its ordinary narration and it concentrates on details. It is compressed and tends towards the dramatic with a good deal of action and dialogue in the course of narration.

The ballad is a poem in short stanzas usually of four lines, having eight and six syllables alternately. The best example is Coleridge’s ballad THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.

Here are some more typical Features:

a single episode of highly dramatic nature is presented.
• the supernatural is likely to play an important part.
• the incidents are usually such as happen to common people (as opposed to nobility) and often have to do with domestic episodes.
• physical courage and love are frequent themes.

incremental repetition is common
transitions are abrupt
• often the ballad is brought to a close with some sort of summary stanza

• slight attention is paid to characterization or description in a detached narration.

• action is largely developed through dialogue with little clue as to who is speaking.

tragic situations and sudden disasters are presented with the utmost simplicity using plain, simple language.

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