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.
Furthermore, rock-oriented acts as Queen, Chicago, Toto, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Air Supply, Seals and Crofts, America, the Eagles and Bread, also had made ballad music.
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).
's albums were generally constructed on the basis of melodramatic soft rock
ballads, with sprinklings of uptempo
pop and rare forays into other genres.
Prominent artists who made sentimental ballads in the 1980s were Stevie Wonder, 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, 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, Amy Winehouse, Jason Mraz, Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Susan Boyle, Powderfinger, Michael Bublé and Josh Groban have become successful thanks to a ballad heavy sound. Rock artists such as Coldplay, Nickelback and Evanescence have also made ballads. Country musicians such as Faith Hill, Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes and Carrie Underwood had also gained popularity for their ballads.
In the 2010s, indie musicians like Imagine Dragons, Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, the Lumineers and Ed Sheeran had indie songs that crossed over to the adult contemporary charts, due to their ballad-heavy sound. In the 2010s, Adele, Bruno Mars, Sam Smith, Calum Scott, Lady Gaga, Andra, James Arthur, Christina Perri, John Legend, Hozier and Sia, among others, have made ballads and enjoyed successes in the adult contemporary charts.