My motive and policy in composing ballads1 for Emily Brontë’s poems has been to respect the original texts fastidiously, and to the greatest possible extent to reveal the songs which are already implicit in the lyrics. In fact, these ballads are the product of a biographical project which examines the likelihood that Emily did sing some of her poems. Although we cannot be certain about melodies and harmonies, we can, by respecting the strong lyricism evident in the poems, be quite sure of the vocal rhythms. In a sense, these poems are already songs, even in the absence of overt melody and harmony. My love for the poems and the poet has made the question “would Emily approve?” a stringent critical guide in composition.2

This project is hosted at where the music can be purchased. Please consider donating to help support my work, which is otherwise unfunded. You can also see information about progress on other volumes, including samples of some of the scores. Volumes will be published after sales of the last released volume have reached a reasonable target, or donations towards the projected volume have reached the same figure. In any case, the volume receiving the most donations will become the next one released.

Poetical Content

Each song includes a commentary at the end of the volume, which touches on some biographical and textual aspects pertaining to the poem, and then provides performance notes. It isn’t my intention to analyse poetical content (that is, narrative meaning) in any detail in the commentary, since I am not qualified to do that, and there are more questions than answers, and many divided opinions, even among scholars up to the present day. For the purposes of writing songs, while it is not strictly necessary to understand all these details, it is better if you can, since it affects both the scansion and the most suitable musical moods. I’ve made a genuine effort to gain such understanding, but almost every poem leaves the reader with unanswerable questions. Two good examples are the closing couplet of R.98,3 and lines 3-5 of R.44. I hope that I’ve struck the right tone in most cases. For further reading, both Roper’s and Gezari’s editions of the complete poems are useful; Roper’s more so, but Gezari’s is available at a tenth of the cost.4 Hatfield’s admirable edition of 1941 was the first to aspire to accuracy, but attempts no commentary on the poems.

Trapped in the Scansion

The most important reason to adhere to the scansion (poetical speech rhythms) is evidently that, to do otherwise would be to discard the artfully-wrought lyricism of Brontë’s poems. It makes no sense that she would do that if she sang them as songs; hence, deviation isn’t even a viable possibility—we are ‘trapped in the scansion’.

[This paragraph is HORRIBLE, although the basic ideas are worth presenting in a more concise and better-worded form.] It is worth remarking that scansion operates across scales, i.e. it is sensitive to meaning, it is not merely a rhythmic stream of syllables with a pleasing collective sound. One attribute of great poetry is, rhythmic musicality across a zone of scales, so it is musically at its best when it is declaimed in a way which comprehends its meanings. The semantics of the poem content determine how it is best declaimed, so this rhythm is specific to the text, at a level higher than And scansion manifests itself on longer scales without semantics necessarily being implicated. A simple example of a longer-scale rhythm this would be exact repetition of some certain non-trivial rhythm several times in a row. So scansion has elements of both ‘musical structure’ and ‘textual structure’, across a range of scales. These are rich encodings of artistic intent (expression of aesthetic sensibility of the artist).

Furthermore, adherence to regular meter was universal in most, perhaps all, of the vocal music Emily heard (nursery rhymes, folk songs, Scottish ballads, church hymns, liturgical choral music, carols and glees, ...). The poetry invariably reflects these traditional structures. If she did have music in mind, I feel certain that the songs would be of a simple cast.

One advantage of these constraints is that the text is clearly apprehensible to the listener. This was a characteristic of the Greek lyric poetry of classical antiquity, from which the poetry of the Romantic era took its roots. In Ancient times, lyric poems were sung (or recited) to the accompaniment of a lyre.

I have not permitted myself to manipulate the texts into strophic, verse/chorus or other such songwriting contrivances. This includes internal repetitions. (It would be easy for you to add some repetition if you wanted, to make short songs longer, bring out ‘hooks’, etc.). The utmost I have done is, in a few cases (R.140 and R.189 come to mind), to repeat a single word from the poem over an instrumental coda. One short song (R.3) is written to be repeated in its ENTIRETY, with one indistinct word alternating between the two most plausible readings. Poems are presented in their ENTIRETY[oops], with two exceptions: R.4 (prelude only), and R.124 (excerpt of a fragment!). Note that some of the poems are themselves fragments, although it’s not possible to know it with certainty in most cases. Aside from R.124 (which excerpts R.123, and has ‘Fragment’ in it’s 1846 title), only R.144, R.189 and R.193 are incontestable fragments not cancelled by the author. I have not bunged short poems together the way many of her editors have done.

ALL THESE THINGS CARRY THE DISADVANTAGE [please improve that] of less musical diversity. As a countermeasure, I take the liberty of using some modern musical styles. In rare instances, a meter other than common time was possible, and I’ve even broken from scansion on occasion, though never without some strong justification. My working process is to first get some understanding of a poem’s semantic content, structure, and speech rhythms. Past that point, I have written what inspiration dictated. There was surprisingly little artifice; openness and dedication were what was required to bring out each song.

Both the natural scansion and the musical simplicity make the songs easier to learn, remember, play, and sing; and, written for guitar, they can be played by the singer, and can be sung anywhere, sitting, standing, walking...

The Minstrel

In working with a number of the shorter poems, a Minstrel persona spontaneously emerged. This figure is never explicitly referred to in the poems but, once conceived, makes a lot of sense. It explains the existence of the poems/songs, and why their author is privy to so much information, even though they seem personally detached. This Minstrel is, of course, Emily herself, although we have no real evidence that she styled herself in those terms. Other attributes of the Minstrel persona are a gloomy streak (pet word ‘drear’),5 for which they are sometimes ostracised by their company, consequently cutting an involuntarily comic figure; also a tendency toward mystical flights, or even mental disturbance (e.g. R.189). The guitar also suits this approach, and a guitar is even addressed in one of the poems (R.32).

I reconcile the ambiguous gender issue by supposing that the Minstrel is a virile and courageous woman (which she was...), who is masquerading as a young man to be able to lead a troubadour’s life. This also permits any vocalist to sing the songs, without distracting the audience with a gender incongruity.

Whach the Spells

At first glance the lyrics appear to contain spelling errors. In fact, this conforms to the original manuscripts, which are all extant, though scattered between British and American collections.6 The readings given by Derek Roper constitute the most accurate complete published reference to the poems of Emily Brontë, and his texts are used in the songs. No confusion is likely to arise, and the original spellings, besides being quaint and authentic, may provide hints about pronunciation or articulation. Misspellings and slips of the pen which could result in confusion (such as ‘were’ for ‘where’, ‘of’ for ‘off’) are corrected. In a few cases I have preferred other scholars’ readings, or my own based on high-resolution facsimiles of Brontë’s holographs. In all cases, words which differ from Roper are mentioned in the endnotes. Possessive apostrophes are generally omitted in the originals, and have not been added here. In at least one case (R.173) it is not even possible to do so unambiguously.


The guitar parts of most of the songs are strong enough to stand on their own, in case you want to recite a poem instead of singing. The rhythms of the voice staves are useful in that they mostly adhere to scansion (hence natural), so such recitations will mesh well with the accompaniment. Even if no accompaniment is played, a spoken rendition of the poem which follows the vocal melody rhythm will probably surpass a more casual reading.


These songs can be played on any guitar, whether amplified or not. They were written on a steel-string travel guitar, but sound nice on nylon-string too. However, note that they are all composed for fingerstyle playing. Some songs can be played convincingly with a pick, but fingertips, with or without nail, will give you the best results here. If you haven’t tried it before, give it a go, it starts to feel natural in no time flat.

It would be possible to play these songs on a piano. Note that the guitar staff is (as always) written an octave higher than it sounds, so middle C is the third space from the bottom as printed here. In other words, you will need to play the songs an octave lower than written if on piano.

A lot of campanella has been used, in part to help an unamplified guitar project enough volume to support a vocalist. In fact, l.v. (“let vibrate”; avoid muting the note as you continue playing) should be taken as applying at all times in performing these songs, especially in a large or noisy space. Such lingering notes are rarely explicit in the score, so you need to use your judgement about when a note should be muted. To my ear, I only need to deliberately mute perhaps one note in a hundred.

The tablature notation is a bit unusual, but I hope it will be self-explanatory by direct comparison with the guitar staff. A detailed guide is available on the website. It is assumed that the majority of players will appreciate the tablature, even if they can read guitar music from a staff.7 If you are singing, it’s expected that you can read a vocal staff. In any case, the guitarist will need to get the rhythms from the guitar staff. If you haven’t learned much staff notation, give it a try and it will gradually explain itself—or you could hasten the process by reading a tutorial.

I have deviated from standard notesetting conventions in some minor respects, such as preferring all stems up in the voice part, and not breaking down the lyrics into syllables; justifications for all such decisions can also be found on the website. However, there is an innovation which requires a word here:  Tick-slurs a ticked slur are used to represent tuplets (metrical groups). This includes triplets as well as all other tuplets. I find that no ambiguity arises, and the staves look much cleaner when not peppered with numerals. Tuplets are used extensively in the vocal part. When in doubt, sing in natural speech rhythms—that is what is being represented. Although the vocal rhythms were carefully composed to agree with poetical scansion, it isn’t necessary to sing exactly what is written.

I hope these ballads, despite their quirks, bring you closer to one of the most revered and musically compelling poets of all time.


First lines of poems cited in the Foreword

Spelling and punctuation are authorial. Numbering refers to Derek Roper The Poems of Emily Brontë, Oxford, 1995. Note that some of these poems’ songs might not yet have been published in the Ballads series, but these, and many others besides, will become available if the current offerings are selling. Please visit to see what is presently available, or to donate towards the musical realisation of particular poems.

R.3Red breast early in the morning
R.4There shines the moon, at noon of night.
R.32For him who struck thy foreign string
R.44What winter floods what showers of Spring
R.98In the earth, the earth thou shalt be laid
R.123Silent is the House
R.124In the dungeon-crypts, idly did I stray,
R.140O evening why is thy light so sad?
R.144I would have touched the heavnly key
R.173Her sisters and her brothers feet
R.189That dreary lake that midnight sky
R.193But the hearts that once adored me


  1. These musical works are really ‘art songs’ a.k.a. ‘lieder’, but ridiculously there is a constraint that a song cannot be an ‘art song’ unless the accompaniment is piano—this in spite of the fact that the European concert song tradition originated in Italy where the accompanying instrument was guitar! Also, admittedly, most of Brontë’s poems are not, technically, ballads, but ‘Brontë Ballads’ has a nice ring to it, so here ‘ballad’ just means ‘song’ in an informal sense.

  2. This is a bit ironic since, from what we know of her character, she would be extremely upset by the publication of her posthumous literary remains!

  3. Poem numbers refer to Roper’s edition of the complete poems. Corresponding first lines are given at the end of the Foreword, and can be used to look up the poems in other editions (or online), for those without access to Roper.

  4. Gezari’s text is also better printed—Roper’s Oxford edition, available printed on demand for several hundred dollars, varies the font size from line to line and is an embarrassment to academic publishing; and if you’re lucky enough to get an original clothbound printing, the text is fine but the binding will swiftly come to pieces...

  5. Editors and biographers make much of this, but generally fail to note that the word was popular with all the Brontës. For example, compare Emily’s Wuthering Heights (13 ‘drear’s) to Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (27 ‘drear’s). Also, in the 1846 edition of poems published by the sisters, Emily’s poems have the fewest occurrences of ‘drear’. In the complete poems, her most frequent non-trival words are ‘heart’ and ‘day’. I would be wary of reading Emily Brontë biography. If you must, I would recommend Charles Simpson’s (or perhaps Gérin’s). I would avoid Chitham, and Barker. I strongly feel there is little to be gained from reading so-called scholarly biography in this case, and there is much to lose, if your idea of the artist is poisoned by unsympathetic academics who evince something like hate for their subject.

  6. Refer to the Commentary, which includes a summary of the locations of the manuscripts, and their accessibility or lack thereof. (Information about holographs can also be found here on the website.)

  7. For those who object to the space taken up by tablature, there is an option to order the books in a format which places the tabs in an appendix. This gives you three lines of music per page (voice and guitar staves), instead of two.