It’s never cracked the Billboard charts or been in rotation on MTV, but everyone is familiar with “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” The earwormy bedtime tune was, like all lullabies, composed to calm and be catchy. The gentle pace, the simple melody, the repetitive structure all work toward that goal.
In fact, nearly all lullabies follow that same structure. Some are intended to woo children to sleep, others are meant to scare, show affection or pass down cultural knowledge from one generation to another. There’s no one-lullaby-fits-all, but we can find certain commonalities.
“A universal lullaby is unlikely,” says Joseph Morgan, assistant professor of musicology at Middle Tennessee State University. “But lullabies are universal — that’s very likely.”
We asked Morgan to dig deep into his musical knowledge and explain the origin of lullabies to us.
Where does the term “lullaby” originate?
Although it’s almost impossible to be certain, Morgan says the word may come from the Hebrew phrase “Lilith-Abi,” literally meaning “Lilith begone.” This phrase refers to a character from Jewish mythology called Lilith who absconds with children in the night. To keep their children save, mother spoke or sang “Lilith-Abis.”
What was the first lullaby?
“The Oxford English Dictionary cites Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale from 1386 as the first use of the word ‘lulled’ in the sense of soothing with sounds or caresses to induce sleep”, Morgan explained. “Chaucer’s use indicates that the term existed way before then.”
But, he added, “There is a classical Latin phrase that was used in the same way. ‘Lalla, lalla, lalla, aut dormi, aut lacte’ — translated as ‘Lalla, lalla, lalla, either sleep or take your milk’ with the word ‘lalla’ probably being the source of our current ‘lull’.”
Were lullabies always cheery?
No, and far from it. “Many lullabies are remarkably dark,” Morgan explained. “The Italian Ninna Nanna is flush with stories of death and disaster including hunger and plague. And let’s not forget our own ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’ whose cradle will fall.”
In 1928, the Spanish poet, playwright and director Frederico Garcia Lorca wondered why so many of his country’s lullabies were tragic. Morgan says, he asked, “Why...has Spain reserved the most potent songs of blood to lull its children to sleep, those least suited to their delicate sensibilities?”
Another disturbing example comes from the 16th century. “The 16th century Coventry Carol — or ‘lullay burden’ — alludes to the biblical story in which King Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed,” Morgan explained. “The Coventry Carol’s text is meant to be that which mothers sang to their doomed children [to ease their fears].”
As this PBS article points out, the lullaby’s dark subject matter might reflect the mother’s fears and anxieties about their babies.
What about how lullabies are sung?
“Lullaby pitches are high,” said Morgan. “But not so high as to awaken or disturb the child. They are most likely to be sung in a register where the singer is most comfortable, thus enabling them to sing softly.”
Morgan cites a study in which 272 premature infants were observed under the effects of a performed lullaby. Among the improved behaviors were feeding, and lower cardiac and respiratory function — all directing the child toward sleep.
Are there any parental benefits?
“Lullabies are sung in private,” Morgan says. “They’re sung away from judgmental ears, to someone who isn’t even paying attention to the words.” They enhance bonding and decrease parental stress, especially in relation to premature infant care.
If I need to know just three lullabies, which do you recommend?
In no particular order:
Brahms’ Lullaby, originally titled “Weigenlied” in German, is common in many baby mobiles and toys. It was written for a young German mother who wanted a new song to sing to her first child.
“Rock-A-Bye Baby,” may have been written by English immigrants who witnessed Native American mothers rocking their babies in cradles suspended from branches. Or, it may have been written in the 1700s about a family that lived in a tree, the children sleeping in hollowed out boughs (“…when the bough breaks.”) The words to “Rock-A-Bye Baby” first appeared in 1765 as a part of Mother Goose’s Melody.
“Good Night,” this modern take on the lullaby appeared on The Beatles’ White Album in 1968. John Lennon wrote it to help ease his son, Julian, to sleep. For the album, Lennon insisted that it be sung by Ringo Starr, whose eccentricity was the perfect complement for the words and melody.