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. 

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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.