Playlist: What is a ballad?

This month, Cambridge University Press will publish Prof. David Metzer's new book, The Ballad in American Popular Music: From Elvis to Beyoncé, a wide-ranging investigation of one of contemporary music's most popular artforms. The High Notes team asked David to share some of the songs that inspired the book. He happily obliged. 


By Dr. David Metzer

As the first history of the ballad, The Ballad in American Popular Music gave me a lot of scholarly work to do. A crucial task was to answer the question: what is a ballad?  It is not so simple, as you might conclude after trying it yourself.  So where better to begin the book than with that question? 

My nutshell definition is that a ballad is a song set to a slow tempo that deals with themes of love and loss.  That only takes you so far, though.  “Ballad” has meant many things over decades, actually millennia. Our idea of a love song was only established as recently as the 1940s.  Besides lexical housekeeping, I discuss what makes a ballad a song in terms of music, vocals, and lyrics. 

To that end, I have enlisted songs from over seventy years to back up my points. You can find the songs in the playlist below (for those who don't use Spotify, I've included a few YouTube videos at the bottom of this post).  They not only stretch across decades but also genres, giving us pop, rock, country, and R&B ballads. I use the songs to illustrate particular points, like long versus short melodies (“Goodbye to Love” and “Please, Please, Please”).  Other songs make us ask how slow is slow for a ballad (“Wrecking Ball,” “Sometimes,” and “Try). 

Some capture different types of rhythms in ballads from the heavy four beats in a bar (“Wrecking Ball”) to more sexy grooves (“Let’s Get it On”).  Accompaniments can range from as sparse as a solo piano (“Stay”) to lush (“A House is Not a Home” and “Love is a Many Splendored Thing”). 

For more about the other songs on the playlist and ballads in general, check out my book.

The Carpenters — "Goodbye to Love"

James Brown & The Famous Flames — "Please, Please, Please"

Miley Cyrus — "Wrecking Ball"

Marvin Gaye: "Let's Get It On"

Rihanne ft. Mikky Ekko — "Stay"

Dionne Warwick — "A House Is Not a Home" 


David Metzer is a professor and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia. He is spending the fall of 2017 in New York City.