Sentimental ballads, also known as pop ballads, rock ballads or power ballads, are an emotional style of music that often deal with romantic and intimate relationships, and to a lesser extent, war (protest songs), loneliness, death, drug abuse, politics and religion, usually in a maudlin but solemn manner. Ballads are generally melodic enough to get the listener's attention.
Sentimental ballads are found in most music genres, such as, pop, R&B, soul, country, folk, rock and electronic music, among others. Ballads tend to have a lush musical arrangement, emphasizing melody and harmonies. Characteristically, ballads use acoustic instruments such as guitars, pianos, saxophones, and sometimes an orchestral set. However though, many modern, mainstream ballads tend to feature synthesizers, drum machines and even, to some extent, a dance rhythm.
Sentimental ballads had their origins in the early Tin Pan Alley music industry of the later 19th century. Initially known as "tear-jerkers" or "drawing-room ballads", they were generally sentimental, narrative, strophic songs published separately or as part of an opera, descendants perhaps of broadside ballads. As new genres of music began to emerge in the early 20th century, their popularity faded, but the association with sentimentality led to the term ballad being used for a slow love song from the 1950s onwards.
Sentimental ballads have their roots from medieval French chanson balladée or ballade, which were originally "danced songs". Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of the British Isles from the later medieval period until the 19th century. They were widely used across Europe, and later in the Americas, Australia and North Africa. As a narrative song, their theme and function may originate from Scandinavian and Germanic traditions of storytelling. Musically they were influenced by the Minnesinger. The earliest example of a recognizable ballad in form in England is "Judas" in a 13th-century manuscript. A reference in William Langland's Piers Plowman indicates that ballads about Robin Hood were being sung from at least the late 14th century and the oldest detailed material is Wynkyn de Worde's collection of Robin Hood ballads printed about 1495.
18th century – early 20th century
Ballads at this time were originally composed in couplets with refrains in alternate lines. These refrains would have been sung by the dancers in time with the dance. In the 18th century, ballad operas developed as a form of English stage entertainment, partly in opposition to the Italian domination of the London operatic scene. In America a distinction is drawn between ballads that are versions of European, particularly British and Irish songs, and 'Native American ballads', developed without reference to earlier songs. A further development was the evolution of the blues ballad, which mixed the genre with Afro-American music.
In the late 19th century, Danish folklorist Svend Grundtvig and Harvard professor Francis James Child attempted to record and classify all the known ballads and variants in their chosen regions. Since Child died before writing a commentary on his work it is uncertain exactly how and why he differentiated the 305 ballads printed that would be published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. There have been many different and contradictory attempts to classify traditional ballads by theme, but commonly identified types are the religious, supernatural, tragic, love ballads, historic, legendary and humorous.
By the Victorian era, ballad had come to mean any sentimental popular song, especially so-called "royalty ballads". Some of Stephen Foster's songs exemplify this genre. By the 1920s, composers of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway used ballad to signify a slow, sentimental tune or love song, often written in a fairly standardized form. Jazz musicians sometimes broaden the term still further to embrace all slow-tempo pieces. Notable sentimental ballads of this period include, "Little Rosewood Casket" (1870), "After the Ball" (1892), and "Danny Boy" (1913).
Popular sentimental ballad vocalists in this era were Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Andy Williams, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Mathis, Connie Francis, Nat King Cole, Liza Minnelli and Perry Como. Their custom recordings were usually instrumental versions of current or recent rock and roll or pop hit songs. The most popular and enduring songs from this style of music are known as "pop standards" or (where relevant) "American standards". Many vocalists became involved in 1960s' vocal jazz and the rebirth of swing music, which was sometimes referred to as "easy listening" and was, in essence, a revival of popularity of the "sweet bands" that had been popular during the swing era, but with more emphasis on the vocalist and the sentimentality.
Soft rock, a subgenre that mainly consist of ballads, was derived from folk rock in the early 1970s, using acoustic instruments and putting more emphasis on melody and harmonies. Major sentimental ballad artists of this decade included Barbra Streisand, Nana Mouskouri, Elton John, Engelbert Humperdinck, Carole King, Cat Stevens, James Taylor. By the early 1970s, softer ballad songs by the Carpenters, Anne Murray, John Denver, Barry Manilow, and even Streisand, began to be played more often on "Top 40" radio.
When the word ballad appears in the title of a song, as for example in The Beatles' "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (1969) or Billy Joel's "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" (1974), the folk music sense is generally implied. The term ballad is also sometimes applied to strophic story-songs more generally, such as Don McLean's "American Pie" (1971).
Prominent artists who made sentimental ballads in the 1980s were Richard Marx, Michael Jackson, Bonnie Tyler, George Michael, Phil Collins, Sheena Easton, Amy Grant, Lionel Richie, Christopher Cross, Dan Hill, Leo Sayer, Billy Ocean, Julio Iglesias, Bertie Higgins, Tommy Page and Laura Branigan.
The 1990s mainstream pop/R&B singers such as All-4-One, Boyz II Men, Rob Thomas, Christina Aguilera, had made a number of successful, chart-topping ballads. In addition to Celine Dion, other artists with multiple number ones ballads on the AC chart in the 1990s included Phil Collins, Marc Anthony, Michael Bolton, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain and Mariah Carey. Backstreet Boys and Savage Garden
Newer female singer-songwriters such as Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Jewel, Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow also broke through on the AC chart during this time owing to their ballad-sound.
A popular trend in the early 2000s was remixing dance music hits into acoustic ballads (for example, the "Candlelight Mix" versions of "Heaven" by DJ Sammy, "Listen To Your Heart" by D.H.T., and "Everytime We Touch" by Cascada).
Throughout this era, artists such as Nick Lachey, James Blunt, John Mayer, Bruno Mars, Jason Mraz, Kelly Clarkson, Adele, Clay Aiken, Susan Boyle, Michael Bublé and Josh Groban have become successful thanks to a ballad heavy sound. Rock artists such as Coldplay, Nickelback and Evanescence have also had made ballad music. Country musicians such as Faith Hill, Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes and Carrie Underwood had also gained popularity for their ballads.
In the early 2010s, indie musicians like Imagine Dragons, Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, the Lumineers and Ed Sheeran also had indie songs that crossed over to the adult contemporary charts, due to their ballad-heavy sound.
Jazz and traditional pop
Most pop standard and jazz ballads are built from a single, introductory verse, usually around 16 bars in length, and they end on the dominant – the chorus or refrain, usually 16 or 32 bars long and in AABA form (though other forms, such as ABAC, are not uncommon). In AABA forms, the B section is usually referred to as the bridge; often a brief coda, sometimes based on material from the bridge, is added, as in "Over the Rainbow".
Examples of notable traditional pop and jazz ballads include:
- "Always" (1925) by Irving Berlin
- "God Bless the Child" by Billie Holiday (1941)
- "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" (1945) by Cole Porter
- "Autumn Leaves" (1945) by Nat King Cole
- "You Mean Everything to Me" (1960) by Neil Sedaka
- "I Will Wait For You" (1965) by Connie Francis.
- "My Way" (1968) by Frank Sinatra
- "Windmills of your Mind" (1968) by Noel Harrison
- "If You Go Away" (1968) by Tom Jones
- "(Where Do I Begin?) Love Story" (1970) by Andy Williams
- "Speak Softly Love" (1972) by Andy Williams
- "Killing Me Softly with His Song" by Roberta Flack (1973) 
Pop and R&B ballads
The most common use of the term "ballad" in modern pop and R&B music is for an emotional song about romance, breakup and/or longing. The singer would usually lament an unrequited or lost love, either where one party is oblivious to the existence of the other, where one party has moved on, or where a romantic affair has affected the relationship.
Some notable examples of pop ballads include: Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On", Elton John's "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word", Delta Goodrem's "Lost Without You", George Michael's "Careless Whisper", Lana Del Rey's "Summertime Sadness", Kelly Clarkson's "Because of You" and Shakira's "Underneath Your Clothes". Examples of R&B ballads include Mariah Carey's "My All" and "Love Takes Time", Lionel Richie's "Hello", Ashanti's "The Way That I Love You", Jazmine Sullivan's "Bust Your Windows", Labrinth's "Jealous", Rihanna's "Unfaithful", and Toni Braxton's "Un-Break My Heart".
Simon Frith, the British sociomusicologist and former rock critic, identifies the origins of the power ballad in the emotional singing of soul artists, particularly Ray Charles, and the adaptation of this style by performers such as Eric Burdon, Tom Jones, and Joe Cocker to produce slow-tempo songs often building to a loud and emotive chorus backed by drums, electric guitars, and sometimes choirs. According to Charles Aaron, power ballads came into existence in the early 1970s, when rock stars attempted to convey profound messages to audiences.
Aaron argues that the power ballad broke into the mainstream of American consciousness in 1976 as FM radio gave a new lease of life to earlier songs such as Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" (1971), Aerosmith's "Dream On" (1973), and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" (1974). The Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love" (1972) has also been identified as a prototype of the power ballad. Notable power ballad examples include Nazareth's version of "Love Hurts" (1975), Heart's "What About Love" (1985) and Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" (1988).
Journey's power ballad, "Faithfully", a late addition to the group's Frontiers (1983) album, inspired Prince, who obtained the blessing of Journey's singer/songwriter Jonathan Cain, before releasing what was to become Prince's signature song, "Purple Rain" (1984).
- Adult contemporary music
- Easy listening
- Soft rock
- Torch song
- List of Irish ballads
- List of rock ballads
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