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.