Ballads were huge in the 80’s and 90’s and still top the charts today, but the modern-day ballad is very different from the traditional ballad. If you want to write a hit ballad song, you’ll need to find a unique topic and a way to add a contemporary spin to your track.
Ballads are the go-to for beginner songwriters, but it’s not easy to write a hit in a saturated industry. To write a ballad that stands out from the crowd, you’ll need to choose a unique ballad topic, experiment with ballad types, and master how to write a pop ballad.
The definition of a ballad has changed a lot over the years. Contemporary artists have reinvented the structure, rhyme, and meter of the traditional ballad – so here’s a guide on what makes a song a ballad, and how to write a pop ballad song.
What makes a song a ballad?
The simplest way to define a ballad is “a narrative set to music.” Ballads can be written as poems or songs and are traditionally structured as a quatrain (a verse of four lines) with an ABAB or ABCB rhyme scheme.
Ballads were hugely popular in the 1990s when they were known as “slow jams.” But ballads actually date back to the medieval period, when they were written by anonymous composers and passed down through the generations. A traditional ballad has a heavy focus on storytelling and would feature a story, characters, and a message to tell its listener.
Ballads have evolved over the years and though a lot of modern ballads still tell a story, storytelling is no longer an essential element of a ballad song. In 20th and 21st-century music, ballads are defined as slow love songs that are written about romance and have a powerful melody.
Examples of Ballads
Here are five examples of classic and more contemporary ballad songs:
#1 The Power of Love by Celine Dion
#2 I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing by Aerosmith
#3 (Everything I do) I Do It For You by Bryan Adams
#4 Always by Bon Jovi
#5 Angels by Robbie Williams
Types of ballad songs
Ballads come in a huge variety of musical styles and can be written in anything from rock ‘n’ roll to country. If you’re struggling to write a ballad in one genre, try experimenting with some different music styles to see if you can give your track a unique spin.
Here are some of the most common types of ballad:
- Power Ballad – this type of ballad is generally focused on love or loss and is sung with heightened emotion and with charged, dynamic vocals that escalate to high notes.
- Pop Ballad – a slow love song that typically tells a story (but doesn’t have to) and is often about heartbreak, or lost love. The pop ballad is slow and usually starts quiet, but is melodic and catchy.
- Country Ballad– a country ballad is much like a traditional ballad; it centres around storytelling and will tell the singer’s personal story or a tale of fictional characters, or historical figures.
- Rock Ballad – Bands like Led Zeppelin have written plenty of rock ballads, and this style of ballad often tells stories or gives character critiques. Rock ballads are known to follow traditional ballad conventions more loosely than other styles.
Whether you’re writing a traditional or contemporary ballad, the topics used in ballad songs haven’t changed much over the years. The most common ballad topics are:
How do you tell if a song is a ballad?
Ballads can cover a wide range of topics, but the biggest signpost that a song is a ballad is if it tells a story of romance and tragic love.
A ballad shares a lot in common with love songs, but there are several ways to differentiate between the two. Ballads originate from country and folk music, so they typically have a much slower and simpler tempo and structure. Traditionally, a ballad will also tell a story. A generic love song might sing about a loved one and describe them, for example, but a ballad will have a moving narrative that tells a love story instead.
The lyrics and melody in a ballad are usually very emotional and powerful, but aren’t as flowery as other tracks. Ballads often use simple language, rhyme, and repetition, to express powerful emotions.
How do you write a pop ballad song?
Step 1: Find your topic and tone
Brainstorming ideas is a good place to start when you’re writing any genre of music. A ballad can be written about an artist’s own life experience, a completely made-up story, or can be inspired by real-life political and historical events.
Jot down some topics or experiences that mean a lot to you and try to expand on each idea by thinking of questions, opinions, and emotions you might want to express about that topic. A story should start to unfold, and these ideas will form your lyrics and melody.
You should start to notice what tone your ballad is taking on, too. Pop ballads are often slow to mid-tempo and are about love or lost love, but you can always listen to existing ballad tracks for inspiration.
Step 2: Apply song structure
What key you play your song in will depend on what type of story you want to tell. C, D, E, G, and A are
Having a song structure to look at can really help the songwriting process because it gives you a building block to build your song up from. When writing a pop ballad, you can choose to format your song as a traditional ballad or you can use a basic pop song structure.
A traditional ballad is often written in AABA song form (which is also used in a lot of popular mainstream songs) where the “A” sections are your verses, and the “B” section is your bridge. Your verses will contain similar melodies but different lyrics, and your bridge should be a complete contrast in melody, harmony, or rhythm.
Alternatively, you can format your song by following a basic pop song structure. Pop songs usually follow the same format: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, chorus, interlude, and chorus.
Take your ideas from the brainstorming stage and try formatting them into these structures. Play around with your word choices and experiment with the order of your verses to see what sounds best and to try and tease out a melody and rhythm.
Step 3: Consider rhyme and meter
Rhyme is a great way to establish rhythm and structure in a song, and traditional ballads almost always have a rhyme scheme. You don’t have to use rhyme in your pop ballad, but having a rhyme scheme can help the songwriting process and act as a structural aid.
Ballads are traditionally written as rhymed quatrains, where each verse is made up of four lines and the first and third line (or the second and fourth line) rhyme. You could try implementing this in your song or, to add a contemporary pop spin, you can set your own rhyme scheme or choose to just use rhyme in your chorus. Experiment with using half-rhymes or even repetition to create catchy lyrics and a modernised sound.
Step 4: Put your ballad to music
When you’ve fleshed out your song with some lyrics, it’s time to put it to music. Playing a beat or backing track while you hum, read, or sing, your lyrics will help you establish the tempo and rhythm of your track and identify any parts of your song that jar with the tone you’re trying to create.
You can create a backing track using an instrument, or by playing a pre-made backing demo online. Some songwriters choose to play a beat during their brainstorming process too, to get inspiration and tease out early ideas for a melody.
Ballad writing prompts
Ballads were hugely popular in the 90’s and 80’s, but not as many have made it into the charts recently. This is because a lot of beginner songwriters attempt to write a ballad and pitch it to a producer, making the market incredibly saturated.
To write a ballad that stands out from a crowd, consider asking yourself these questions when writing and editing your song:
- Can you take a retro power ballad and rewrite the lyrics to be about a contemporary issue or current event?
- Will you be able to incorporate some modern mixing techniques and synthesisers into your piece?
- Can you re-write your ballad in a different, more popular genre, such as hip hop, pop, or rock?
- Can you add some metaphors and imagery and create a lyrical ballad or a power ballad?
Ballads have been around for a long time and are here to stay. But to write a ballad that fares well in contemporary music, you’ll need to add a modern twist to your track; whether that’s by playing around with different rhyme schemes, writing a different type of ballad, or injecting an element of pop.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is a ballad song example?
Some of the most iconic ballad songs date back to the 90’s, such as Mariah Carey’s “Hero”, and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” But there are also examples of ballads in modern music, such as “Hello” by Adele, and “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber.
- What instruments are used in ballads?
Traditional ballads feature a lot of acoustic instruments, such as guitars, saxophones, and pianos. Modern ballads, however, share a lot of crossover with dance and pop and tend to feature synthesisers and drum machines alongside the guitar.