See also: Beginner’s Guide to Poetic Meter.
Do you want to tell a story in a sing-song fashion? No. You want to write a ballad.
A ballad is a song that tells a story. While many of the popular ballads you hear on the radio (and Internet) are love songs, any story qualifies to be a ballad.
Even if you’re not a musician, you can write a ballad. Ballads aren’t just songs. There is a long history of ballad poetry (which is where most of the rules of the ballad come from).
The Rules of the Ballad
Ballads are written in common meter: cycling lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter arranged into quatrains. (Translation: every other line has either 4 or 3 stressed syllables, and your stanzas are 4 lines long.)
You don’t have to take the stresses of your lines too seriously. As long as you’re writing a story in poetic fashion and intend to sing it someday, you can call your poem a ballad.
I know, I know… maybe you need help working on common meter. Or maybe you’re writing a poem, not a song.
I think it’s okay. Experiment. Try your best at common meter if you think that will help you sing your ballad better. If not, don’t worry—write your story first.
If you write a good story, then you’ve written a good song. How the lyrics come out is not as important as having the lyrics say something meaningful.
The criteria for making a song (piece of poetry) a ballad are as follows:
- Tells a story.
- Is written in common meter.
- Is written in quatrains.
Whaaaat? That’s it?
For songs, you actually don’t need to worry about the meter or stanza length. Ballads are just song-stories. Bards sing them. (Though singing ballads doesn’t make you a bard. Too bad.)
The Process of Writing a Ballad
Ballads are an easy piece of poetry/songwriting. It’s really hard to go wrong when the primary objective of a ballad is to tell a story.
To keep things simple and lovely, try this:
- Write a story. Love stories tend to be easier to write. And everyone can empathize with a love story. Or a story of anger. Or a story of revenge. Or a story of reconciliation. Come up with a cool story.
- Put your story in sing-song form. Whether that’s using a form like common meter or just kinda humming words to a tune and making them sorta fit… get your story into lyric form.
- Add it to music. You’ll need a melody line and a chord progression to go on underneath if you want it to be a song. Skip ahead a step if you’re writing a poem, not a song.
- Revise. Play around with different story endings, melodies, and lyrics. Choose the ones you like the best, and share that!
Finally, I think it’s important to note that ballads come in every genre. No matter what kind of music you’re writing, if your lyrics tell a story it’s a ballad.
By that definition, a lot of rap music is balladic. I’ve heard my fair share of metal ballads as well. Don’t let yourself get sucked into a trap of thinking that your ballad has to be limited by genre—if anything, experiment with genre. It might help you tell the story better!
Have you ever written a ballad? What are some of your favorite oddball-genre ballads?
And uh, if you still have questions about how to write a ballad (or what counts as a ballad) you should let me know in the comments.