A ballad is a song with a serious lyrical intention that is characterized by the legato feeling of the melodic line. That is, the content of the song is usually something we take seriously and the music is smooth and flowing. It is the legato feeling of the music that really defines the song. In other words, a bouncy tune with serious words isn’t a ballad, whereas a smooth, flowing melody with a lighter content very well could be a ballad.

Ballads are used for many dramatic reasons, but the most common is probably a love song of some kind or other. Examples abound, and you can select your favorites. “If Ever I Would Leave You” is a typical ballad of the love song variety. Although the song is performed in the show Camelot with a very strong rhythmic pulse, the melody is very legato in style. Notice, also, how the words are arranged to make this possible. The only consonant that could be considered harsh in the opening title phrase is the “v” in ever and leave, and neither sound prevents the easy motion of the lyric. Say the phrase, “If ever I would leave you.” One word blends into the next effortlessly – making this very easy to sing in the legato style of the music. Also, the phrases tend to end with round, open sounds – “Knowing how in spring I’m bewitched by you soooooooo” – so the singer can sustain the ends of phrases with an attractive sound. If a ballad is defined by the character of the music, the definition must be supported by the sound and content of the words.

Certainly not all ballads are boy-meets-girl love songs. One of the most interesting is from Oklahoma! The song “Lonely Room” is used to humanize a character. Jud is the villain, but rather than the evil, leering gent of earlier melodramas, he’s characterized as a psychologically disturbed murderer who craves physical love. Here the song really helps the audience understand and even fear the character. The words are effective, and the music is sometimes balladic and legato, other times abrupt and staccato, reflecting the schizoid nature of both the song’s content and the character.

Another interesting use of a ballad is the song “Far From The Home I Love” in Fiddler On The Roof. This song explores the drama with a simple eloquence and causes the central character to re-examine his priorities when his daughter sings it. Again, the lyrics support the style of the music with soft consonants – “Far from the home I love/Yet there with my love, I’m home.”