A phrase in the dominant key (marked piano) opens the seven introductory measures and leads into the first subject of sonata-form exposition, a melody with Slavonic coloration. The first theme undergoes four cumulative transformations with decorations, counter-melodies, counterpoint, and a nocturne-like fioritura. The development of the second theme and its intertwining with the first heightens the complexity of the musical structure and builds tension. Through the intertwining and thus the simultaneous development of the two themes, Chopin effectively combines the use of both the sonata form and the variation form. The body of the piece concludes with a series of accented fortissimo chords, followed by a momentary calm of five pianissimo chords. This then suddenly leads into an extremely fast, turbulent coda, written in exuberantcounterpoint. Structurally Ballade No. 4 is decidedly intricate.
A distinguishing feature of the fourth Ballade is its contrapuntal nature. Counterpoint is found only sporadically in Ballades Nos. 1 and 2. The fourth Ballade is musically more subtle than the other three, as most of its portions remain melancholic and profound. Although there are some substantial outbursts in the central sections of the music, the coda reveals its greatest momentum.
Of the four Ballades, it is considered by many pianists to be the most difficult, both technically and musically.
According to John Ogdon, "[it is] the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin's compositions ... It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime."