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A Brief History of Lullabies

A Brief History of Lullabies

Regardless of when or where you were born, chances are that as an infant, you were lulled to sleep with a soft, gentle song. Lullabies, which are sometimes called cradle songs, are calming melodies people throughout the world have been using for centuries to soothe babies and small children to sleep.

Lullabies are found in virtually every culture and sung in every language. They usually consist of a few simple, rhythmic verses sung or played in 6/8 time, accompanied by a gentle back and forth rocking motion in a cradle or the arms. The slow and even tempos are similar to the mother’s heartbeat felt by the baby before birth, which make lullabies an excellent means of bonding with and calming an infant.

Music by the world’s greatest composers and simple melodies sung or hummed by loving parents and caregivers have comforted and calmed babies to sleep for generations. The soft, gentle sounds of a lullaby give the infant a feeling of security and serenity, while the gentle rocking motion helps the child associate music and motion.

Here’s information on some of the better-known lullabies and their origins:

Brahms’ Lullaby

Originally titled “Wiegenlied: Guten Abend, gute Nacht”, which is German for “Lullaby: Good evening, good night”. Brahms’ Lullaby is perhaps the most well-known and easily recognizable of the cradle songs. Published in 1868, Johannes Brahms wrote Brahms’ Lullaby for his friend bertha Faber to commemorate the birth of her second son. Found in mobiles hanging above baby cribs, music boxes and often integrated into children’s toys, it’s also the refrain that accompanies a cartoon character that’s been knocked on the head.

Rock-a-Bye Baby

Although breaking boughs and cradles with babies falling from treetops seems at a minimum to be inappropriate if not an outright frightening to sing to a child, Rock-a-Bye Baby remains one of the world’s most famous lullabies. Dating back to the 18th century, there are several theories as to the song’s origin. One is that English immigrants coming to North America observed Native American mothers place their babies in birch-bark cradles hung from tree branches, which were gently rocked by the breeze until the child fell asleep. Another theory is an 18th-century tale from Derbyshire, England about a family that lived in a gigantic yew tree whose eight children all slept in hollowed out tree boughs.

An Irish Lullaby (Toora Loora Loora)

Irish lullabies traditionally combine soothing melodies with graceful lyrics, and Toora Loora Loora is no exception. The lilting tune gained popularity after being crooned by Bing Crosby as young Irish priest Father Charles O’Mailey in the 1948 hit film “Going My Way”. Contrary to popular thinking, the song didn’t originate in ancient Ireland, but rather was written in 1913 by American composer James R. Shannon for a Broadway musical. The song has endured as a popular lullaby that’s been sung to young children for more than one hundred years.

Once again tonight, the youngest children throughout the world will be comforted and lulled to sleep with soothing lullabies, just as they have for centuries.

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