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What Is the Format of a Ballad?
A ballad with lyrics traditionally follows a pattern of rhymed quatrains. This means that for every four-line grouping, either the first and third line will rhyme or the second and fourth lines will rhyme.
The more common of these rhyme schemes is the latter, where the second and fourth lines rhyme with one another. We call this an ABCB quatrain, where the “B” lines rhyme with each other, as they do in the following quatrain:
Upon a horse a knight did ride
Well armed with shield and lance
But when a dragon did appear
He cried and wet his pants
The final word of the second line (“lance”) rhymes with the final word of the fourth line (“pants”). As such we may deem those to each be “B” lines in ABCB analysis. Meanwhile, the first and the third lines do not rhyme; in fact, to ensure proper ABCB form, they must not rhyme.
Another thing to note about the quatrain above is the consistent meter. All the lines are iambic, which means that every even-numbered syllable is accented, as such:
Upon a horse a knight did ride
In addition to consistent iambic form—known as iambic tetrameter in poetic ballads with four lines—each line maintains a fixed set of syllables. The first and third lines each contain eight syllables, while the second and fourth lines each contain six syllables.
Other Examples of Ballad Form
The ABCB form is not the only way to write a verse of a ballad. In fact, even classic ballads took liberties with the ballad format. Consider “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” written by John Keats in 1819. The poem follows the ABCB format, but it takes liberties with the metric pattern of each line. One quatrain reads:
I saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gapèd wide
And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill’s side
The meter is less strict than the one seen in our prior example, but the verse is still unmistakably in the ABCB format.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Ballad
Although the word “ballad” no longer refers exclusively to story songs, beginning with a story is a great way to compose your first ballad. Here is a step-by-step guide.
1. Choose Your Topic
A ballad can be inspired by a story in the songwriter’s own life, a fictional scenario with fictional characters, or a real event from history or contemporary events. Nobel Prize-winning songwriter Bob Dylan is a noted master of all three:
- Some of Dylan’s most famous compositions are ballads “ripped from the headlines,” whether recent or past. In 1963’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Dylan took his listeners through a horrifying event that had occurred only months prior. In 1975’s “Hurricane,” he recounts the trial of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who, at that point, had been in jail for nine years.
- Other Dylan ballads delve into history. “Tempest,” for instance, is a very loose account of the Titanic tragedy with humor and oddities thrown in. “Highway 61 Revisited” gives similar treatment to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.
- Other Dylan ballads concern fictional characters, like “Desolation Row” or “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.”
- Others are tales of Dylan himself, whether epic ramblers (“Tangled Up in Blue”) plaintive remembrances (“Sara”), humorous fiction (“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”) or just downright mysterious (“Highlands”).
2. Choose Your Tone
As Bob Dylan exemplifies, ballads can present a variety of tones, whether purposeful, playful, plaintive, or mysterious. Many of the best ballads will offer multiple tones, sometimes within the same verse.
A strong example of a ballad with a contrasting tone is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Consider the following pair of quatrains:
And now there came both mist and snow
And it grew wondrous cold
And ice, mast-high, came floating by
As green as emerald
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between
The first quatrain describes a sense of wonder and awe. Entities that might portend doom—namely cold and ice—are described using words like “wondrous” and “emerald.” Yet in the subsequent verse, that awe gives way to a sense of foreboding, and words like “dismal” creep in. Suddenly we get a sense of isolation and a fear of what may be in store for the poem’s namesake mariner.
3. Use Rhyme and Meter as Useful Tools
Sometimes it’s easiest to be creative when there are rules to guide you. Remember that most ballads consist of quatrains where either the first and third lines rhyme, or the second and fourth lines rhyme. Don’t regard this as a limitation. Look at it as a structural aid to propel you forward. Perhaps you don’t want your ballad to be as rigidly structured as the earlier example about the pants-wetting knight; then again, perhaps that level of rhythmic precision is helpful. It’s truly up to you.
4. Let the Story Guide You
Writing a full song or poem may be intimidating, but an evolving storyline can easily propel you forward. Case in point: Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is 143 verses long. (And Iron Maiden’s adaptation of it as a heavy metal song is thirteen minutes, forty-five seconds long.) Meanwhile, Bob Dylan’s ballad “Highlands” is sixteen minutes, thirty-one seconds long. If you have a good story to tell in your ballad, you should have no difficulty writing verse after verse.
Many musical ballads tell their stories in the verses while continually returning to a repeated chorus, or even just a single repeated line (such as the title phrase in Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”). John Prine’s folk ballad “Lake Marie” contains long spoken verses broken up by anthemic sung choruses that are the same each time. Other ballads, like Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” return to musical motifs but without a repeated lyrical phrase.
The practice of storytelling interspersed with repeated themes or lyrics is called “incremental reception.” One such example is the poem “Lord Randall” by Sir Patrick Spens. Note the repeated phrases in this stanza:
Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall my son?
O where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man?
“I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon
For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fair wald lie down”
“Where gat ye your dinner, Lord Randall my son?
Where gat ye your dinner, my handsome young man?”
The story advances, but the repeated phrases give it structure. None other than Bob Dylan himself would emulate this technique in tunes like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”
Examples of Ballads in Music
Ballads are found in all forms of popular music. These include:
- Folk. Ballads are a key part of the folk tradition. Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is one such example. For a lighter folk ballad, seek out “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter Paul and Mary.
- Country. Country music has always been a storytelling genre. For a mainstream country ballad, consider “God Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts. For a more alternative country ballad, you can’t go wrong with “Christian Lady Talkin’ on a Bus” by the eccentric Blaze Foley.
- Rock. The word “ballad” is a bit looser in rock. Some songs with “ballad” in the title really do tell stories, like The Beatles’ “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Yet ironically the great balladeer Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Ballad of a Thin Man” that’s less of a story and more of a snarling character critique. Plenty of other rock songs tell stories like Led Zeppelin’s Tolkien-inspired “Ramble On.”
- Jazz. In jazz, the word “ballad” typically refers to slow, melodic tunes. The story element is optional, particularly because so many jazz ensembles don’t even feature vocalists. “Misty,” “Darn That Dream,” and “Body and Soul” are examples of classic jazz ballads.