Murder Ballads

Writing a Murder Ballad

Weaving powerful stories with this poignant subgenre

Songwriters are storytellers. We draw people into the energy of our songs and then we take them on a journey with us. Sometimes that journey can be positive and upbeat. Other times we can take the listener to a darker place.

What is a murder ballad?

A murder ballad, as you might have guessed from the name, tells the story of a true or imaginary death. Over the course of the story, we learn:

• Who the victim is
• Why the murderer killed them
• How the victim was lured to their place of death
• What happened
• Whether the murderer escaped or was captured. Often, a murder ballad closes with the murderer in jail or on their way to be executed and begging the listener not to copy their crime.

If you can have a twist in your tale, even better.

The characteristics of a murder ballad

While there have been some big hits with murder ballads, for the most part, they’re not written for the radio, so you can be as vivid and descriptive as you like. The more detail you put into your story the better.
The melody of a murder ballad tends to be very repetitive. There may not even be a chorus per se. You’re not looking for big melodic shapes. Keep the chords and melody unobtrusive so they don’t detract from the story you’re telling.
Murder ballads are most commonly found within the folk, folk/rock or blues/rock genres, so consider keeping yours within the same style.

Writing a murder ballad

You might like to start with an existing great story. Look into old folk tales or contemporary news stories. They do say truth is stranger than fiction and when it comes to murder, there’s plenty of incredible tales out there which take the pressure off you needing to come up with something yourself.
Whatever you use for your inspiration, keep the story dark. You might like to open with the lead character strapped into the electric chair repenting his crimes or walking free, leaving someone else to take the blame.
Murder ballads can have a supernatural element. They can be eerie and haunting, lingering with the listener long after the final chord has faded away.
You might like to write your story first by getting it out into prose and then converting it into a song format. Alternatively, you could come up with a wistful, melancholy melody and then put a story to your tune.
Whatever approach you take, put yourself in the shoes of one of the characters of your story. Write in first person and let the listener understand what you’re going through.

Examples of murder ballads

If you need some ideas to get you going, have a listen to these outstanding murder ballads and then go and pen your own song of death and destruction:

• Killing Him Didn’t Make the Love Go Away by Amy LaVere
• Goodbye Earl by The Dixie Chicks
• Suffer Little Children by The Smiths
• I Don’t Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats
• Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix
• Delilah by Tom Jones
• Stan by Eminem feat. Dido

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