The ballad probably derives its name from medieval French dance songs or "ballares" (from which we also get ballet), as did the alternative rival form that became the French Ballade. In theme and function they may originate from Scandinavian and Germanic traditions of storytelling that can be seen in poems such as Beowulf. The earliest example we have of a recognisable ballad in form in England is ‘Judas’ in a 13th-century manuscript.
Most, but not all, northern and west European ballads are written in ballad stanzas or quatrains (four-line stanzas) of alternating lines of iambic (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables), known as ballad meter. Usually, only the second and fourth line of a quatrain are rhymed (in the scheme a, b, c, b), which has been taken to suggest that, originally, ballads consisted of couplets (two lines) of rhymed verse, each of fourteen syllables. As can be seen in this stanza from ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Annet’:
The horse| fair Ann|et rode| upon|
He amb|led like| the wind|,
With sil|ver he| was shod| before,
With burn|ing gold| behind|.
However, there is considerable variation on this pattern in almost every respect, including length, number of lines and rhyming scheme, making the strict definition of a ballad extremely difficult. In southern and eastern Europe, and in countries that derive their tradition from them, ballad structure differs significantly, like Spanish romanceros, which are octosyllabic and use consonance rather than rhyme.
In all traditions most ballads are narrative in nature, with a self contained story, often concise and relying on imagery, rather than description, which can be tragic, historical, romantic or comic. Another common feature of ballads is repetition, sometimes of fourth lines in succeeding stanzas, as a refrain, sometimes of third and fourth lines of a stanza and sometimes of entire stanzas.
Scholars of ballads are often divided into two camps, the ‘communalists’ who, following the line established by the German scholar Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) and the Brothers Grimm, argue that ballads arose by a combined communal effort and did not have a single author, and ‘individualists’, following the thinking of English collector Cecil Sharp, who assert that there was a single original author. The communalist position tends to lead to the view that more recent, particularly printed broadside ballads, where we may even know the author, are a debased form of the genre. The individualists position has tended to lead to the view that later changes in the words of ballads are corruptions of an original text. More recently scholars have pointed to the interchange of oral and written forms of the ballad.