The Lullaby – A Song for Everyone

The lullaby, also known as a cradle song, is one of the most recognized, universal, and consistent genres of music in the world.

A gif of Dumbo as a baby elephant, swinging from his mom's trunk.

Although it is impossible to pinpoint the origin of the lullaby, the title began in the late 16th century. The purpose of lullabies are to sooth as well as encourage sleep for infants. Rhyming patterns, simplicity, and a certain amount of repetition make lullabies both soothing to listen to and the lyrics and melody easy to retain and remember. Singing or playing gentle music for infants helps maintain and improve health.

A Universal Routine

The routine of singing lullabies can help to strengthen the bond between caregiver and child. Lullabies promote positive emotions; the brain’s focus on enjoyable sounds creates happy, calm feelings. The lyrics, melody, and soothing singing or playing style are all important to the make-up of a lullaby. Lullabies are also connect to the traditions and culture of their societies of origin. As lullabies are a type of folk song, their lyrics often relate to culturally relevant topics, and often become deeply tied with the culture.

Lullabies come from all over the world, from an immense amount of cultures and have many similarities–they are generally soft, slow, and feature a limited amount of, if any, instruments. The instruments are ones that resemble softness, such as stringed instruments or the piano. Western lullabies, both the traditional and classical types, are in triple meter or 6/8 time, which mimics the rocking movements of cradles. The lyrics often feature references to tranquility, well-wishes, dreams, love, family, infants, and even animals; various themes that relate to night time and sleep.

a cradle at night

Lullabies in Media

Many of the traditional lullabies that we know today originated within the United States of America; they are popular to this day. “Hush, Little Baby” is believed to have originated from the Southern U.S., but little else about its origins is known. The tune has been performed or reimagined in music by many modern musicians, including folk rock singer Joan Baez, singer/songwriter Nina Simone, and even rap artist, Eminem. It also has a popular R&B version known as “Mockingbird.”

“Kumbaya” is thought to have been written in the early 20th century, but the true date is unknown. It originated as an African American spiritual from the Southern islands and states of America. It has become a common tune sung around the campfire and during children’s summer camps, and gained a resurgence in popularity during the folk revival after musicians Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Joe Hickerson recorded their own versions of the song.

As with the majority of traditional lullabies, the origin of “Rock-a-bye Baby” is unknown. However, theories allude to the poem being written by 17th century colonists on American soil. In this American theory, it is presumed that the lyrics refer to an English colonist witnessing Native American women suspending their infants in cradles hanging from trees, letting the wind rock the babies to sleep.

A close up of Hands holding baby feet on a gray carpet.

Famous Melodies

In terms of classical music, one of the most popular lullabies is Johannes Brahms’ “Wiegelied” (German lullaby), often referred to as “Brahms’ Lullaby” or “Cradle Song.” Originally composed in 1868 for voice and piano, the piece is often arranged for piano and solo strings. The lyrics originated mostly from a German poem and feature thoughts and wishes for dreams, angels, and sleeping peacefully.

Although not originally intended as a lullaby, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” is widely known for its soothing yet contemplative nature. Published in 1905, it originated as the third movement in Debussy’s piano suite titled “Suite bergmasque.” Although the piece does not feature any lyrics, the title comes from a poem of the same name written by Verlaine, and means “moonlight” in French.

Before “Porgy and Bess” or “Rhapsody in Blue,” during his days still learning from Hungarian composer Edward Kileny, George Gershwin arranged a string quartet that he titled simply “Lullaby.” Although the piece was written around 1920, it wasn’t published until 1968. The arrangement does not include vocals; just the four strings. It’s a fun piece that still reflects the tranquility expected of a lullaby–a Gershwin twist on a classic form.

Lullabies Today

A picture of the singing group, ABBA, behind guitar strings.
The cover of the album babies go ABBA

Although many relatively recent composers have written lullabies, and more traditional lullabies continue to be used in American culture, the production of original lullabies has slowed down in the modern day. There have been, however, many modern songs that have been re-imagined as lullabies. One can find lullaby renditions of almost any type of music, from ABBA to Metallica.

This fact could be tied to the intertwining relationship of lullabies and culture. Popular music often mirrors the time at which it was written; the events happening in society often inspire the topics within lyrics. The songs that many caregivers are now singing to their infants are their own favorite modern songs. There are also many songs produced today that can be interpreted as lullabies, even though that may not have been the musicians original intention. Any tune that is soft, simple, slow, and soothing can technically be classified as a lullaby.

A close up of a baby wearing a hat with their cheek pressed to a shoulder in a purple t-shirt.