How to Explore Ballads With Your Class

When people hear the word ‘ballad’ today they often think of mushy love songs, but ballads have a much greater history. While most poetry is concerned with evoking emotions and feelings, the ballad is a vehicle for story-telling, and has been with us since medieval times.

The words are set to music to become a song, and follow a simple rhyming pattern and a set meter (or rhythm).

Each verse has four lines, and the poem can have as many verses as necessary to tell the story. Some famous examples are ‘Beowulf’, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘The House of The Rising Sun.’*

Because a ballad can tell any story, they are a great way of fitting creative writing tasks into your curriculum.  Here are some exercises you can use to explore the form:

  • A ballad will often have a refrain.  This is a line that keeps recurring throughout the poem.    What is the refrain in ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’? (The answer is ‘O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave’!)  Can your class think of some refrains from songs they know?
  • A ballad has an ABCB rhyme scheme. This means the 2nd and the 4th lines rhyme, but the 1st and 3rd don’t. Choose a topic for your students to write a poem using this structure – it can be anything!  Ask your students to make up a tune for their poems to turn them into songs.
  • A ballad uses an iambic rhythm, which means the second syllable out of every two is stressed.  It sounds like this: deDUM deDUM deDUM deDUM.  Practice clapping this with a small clap followed by a big one.  The 1st and the 3rd line should have 8 syllables/claps, the 2nd and 4th line have 6. Try reading the poem ‘I Often Contradict Myself’ while clapping to see how it fits. See how silly it sounds if you clap in the opposite rhythm DEdum DEdum DEdum DEdum!

If you would like to make a whole project out of ballads, then follow these easy steps:

  1.  Choose a fairy-tale, or a story that relates to something you are studying in class.
  2. Get the class to think of a refrain that could be used to help tell the story.
  3. Split the class into groups, and give each group a section of the story.
  4. Using the ABCB rhyme scheme and iambic rhythm, each group should come up with a verse or two to tell their part of the story.
  5. In order, each group should recite their section, with everybody joining in to recite the refrain.
  6. Ask each group to come up with a tune for the verses, and vote on which one you’re going to use
  7. Everybody can learn the song, and your class can perform it as an assembly!

*There are also many traditional English ballads about Robin Hood, which would be sung by wandering minstrels – the opening of the Disney film Robin Hood is a good example.