What Is a Traditional Ballad?


The poetic, story-telling ballad of traditional classical music, is but an afterthought to the contemporary ballad form. Modern ballads are considered to be slow songs, usually about love, but traditional ballads follow a standard format and tell lengthy stories that invoke imagery. The history of the ballad has its roots in folk music with key identifying traits that set ballads apart from other song forms.


  • Ballads began as English folk music in the form of recited poetry accompanied by music. Songs weren't written, as many peasants were uneducated, and instead were passed down to each generation orally. It wasn't until the15th century that ballads began to be printed and sold. Authors didn't receive fame and were looked down upon by other artists because they were in the lower classes.

    The 16th century introduced the opera ballad, which was greeted warmly by audiences. It challenged the refined opera genre by using popular ballads, instead of songs in foreign languages, composed for the upper classes.

    It wasn't until the 19th century that ballad writing increased in stature and popularity, when poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed many ballads.


  • Traditional ballads were universal songs meant to be understood by everyone, so writers would choose words that even the uneducated might understand. That isn't to say some poets wouldn't write complex ballad lyrics, but the bulk of ballads thrived on simplicity and the common man.

    The stanza (phrase or paragraph within a poem) consisted of four lines and the second and fourth lines rhymed. The first and third lines featured four stressed syllables, although there can be more syllables within the lines. The refrain (phrase or chorus) alternates between the stanzas, which unites the song.

    Dialogue between characters is common through a ballad's storytelling lyrics. This is different than a lyric poem or ballad, which describes emotion. Sometimes there's a narrator who does not refer to himself through song, but helps to guide the ballad.

Subject Matter

  • Many traditional ballads utilized folkloric tales that featured fictional characters. Other ballads are plot driven and focused on current events that could also be fictionalized. Writers often discussed love and loss, everyday turmoils and trials without happy endings. The songs are lengthy and generally mournful, reflecting hardships of the common man.


  • One of the early English opera ballads was "The Beggar's Opera." The content made jest of aristocracy and politics and featured popular songs of the times. The characters include thieves, prostitutes and informers, and the story is filled with scandal. It was very risque for the time, but was very popular.

    Another example is the song "Erlkonig," which was written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and composed by Schubert. It is a haunting song about a father and his sick son on horseback being chased by the erlking, a supernatural being, who is trying to lure the son away. The music is dramatic and suspenseful in the beginning but eerily calm as the song nears the end.

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