Ten Observations on Lullabies

In defense of a slighted genre

Ten Observations on Lullabies

by Ted Gioia

(1) Is any music genre more disrespected than the lullaby? It may be the oldest music genre, and almost certainly the most widely performed. Every one of us has benefited from the lullaby at some point in our life—if not as a singer, at least as a listener during our infancy. But show me a single musicologist who specializes in this genre. Who has written its history? What music writer has celebrated its power?

(2) And this power is undeniable. If you were constructing scientific experiments on the efficacy of music in changing human behavior, the place to start is with a lullaby. You rarely hear the words “power” and “lullaby” in the same sentence, but the history of song as a force of dominance and submission could hardly find a richer area for exploration. Yet it represents such a gentle force of persuasion that many would resist any such inquiry, almost as a matter of principle. The whole topic is rich with philosophical and sociological implications.

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(3) The omissions in the standard texts are sometimes startling. The single most frequently cited book on the mesmerizing power of music is Gilbert Rouget’s Music and Trance. I don’t have my copy at hand (it’s packed up in moving box right now), but if I recall correctly he has no interest in lullabies. He’s a skeptic about music’s ability to put people into a trance state, yet almost every parent on the planet knows otherwise from personal experience. Rouget doesn’t even realize that this is an issue he ought to consider.

(4) The absence of lullabies in music history books is even more striking. Medievalist John Haines offers this interesting observation: “The lullaby fits poorly in a story that revolves around monumental works made by great men. . . . The medieval lullaby is anonymous, common, childish and lacking in written codification. A great work of medieval music history like Adam’s rondeau above can be presented in histories as an authoritative text, complete with its title, composer, date and musical score. But the lullaby, for which no titles, no composers and no dated or notated specimens survive, cannot. In the traditional history of medieval music, the lullaby has no place. It is, in short, an empty space.”  

“Adults don’t want to be caught listening to lullabies. . . . There’s an opportunity here—not just for scholarship on lullabies, but for a broader study of how shame impacts music education and music criticism.”

(5) In other words, there is no history of the medieval lullaby—even though thousands (or probably millions) must have been sung. Yet even more strange: the same thing is true of the current-day lullabies. We are told that in a digital age, everything is documented. Well, there is one exception—nobody has a clear idea what parents sing to babies every night. There are probably a hundred million tracks on Spotify, but they don’t even begin to answer that question. 

(6) I’m also surprised how little curiosity is expressed by experts about why lullabies work. There’s even a school of thought which claims they don’t work—or, rather, that the music isn’t the efficacious part of the lullaby. Bruce Chatwin, in his book The Songlines, suggests that rhythm, not music, puts a baby to sleep—and especially the rhythmic movement that usually accompanies a lullaby. Chatwin’s explanation is that human communities were originally nomadic and that the walking necessitated by their itinerant lifestyles was one of the first things infants experienced in life. Long after our societies became settled, the babies still crave this repetitive movement. The rhythm of the music is merely an emulation or addition to it.

I’m not sure whether Chatwin’s theory is true. But I do know that moving around while holding my own children, in addition to singing, helped put them to sleep. I was an ardent lullaby singer during their early days, crooning gentle songs (mostly jazz ballads) every night, and with apparent success. But it’s quite possible that rocking back and forth without any music would have been just as efficacious. Maybe the singing was just an self-indulgent add-on for my own enjoyment. (After all, who else except an infant would welcome hearing me sing “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You”?)

By the way, the single best purchase we made as inexperienced parents was a rocking chair—and I’ve advised others preparing for the imminent arrival of a baby to do the same. Take it from me: a rocking chair is a necessity, not a luxury, when dealing with an newborn.

(7) Another skeptical theory asserts that almost any kind of repetitive noise is just as reliable as a song in calming a baby, especially a relaxing, textured drone. I’ve even heard one parent praise the sound of the electric hair dryer—a noise I find quite annoying—as a magical relaxant for newborns. Another source testifies to the efficacy of vacuum cleaners as the ultimate soporific. Parents can test it themselves with this Soundcloud link (or they can dispense with the link, and just vacuum every night around bedtime).

I note that drone sounds are having something of a renaissance in music nowadays, and for adults, not babies. (I hope to write about that subject in the near future.) Perhaps they become prominent in music during troubled times due to their relaxing or stupefying effect on listeners.

(8) But my favorite theory of lullaby efficacy focuses on the first song every baby hears, namely the mother’s heartbeat. Around the time we became parents, I learned of an entrepreneur who had successfully marketed a recording of lullabies with the sound of a heartbeat actually mixed in with the music—a concept that would soon become widely imitated. We purchased a cassette tape, and tried it out, and it seemed reasonably effective, but we never did a legitimate test, with the kind of controls and comparisons required for more precise evaluation. Yet this has now become a standard tool in the parenting arsenal, a kind of musical support when an infant is fussy or restless.

I’ve often wondered whether the rhythm of a human heartbeat doesn’t continue to exert a calming or sleep-inducing effect on us even as adults. I suspect that a statistical measure of music marketed for relaxation or meditation would show that the tempos of these recordings are fairly close to a typical pulse rate. Also I wouldn’t be surprised if research couldn’t confirm a pitch correlation as well between the rich low notes of this music and the frequency register of the throbbing human heart.

(9) In recent years, sleep music has taken off as a genre. Some of my favorite recordings in the category are by Max Richter, and actor Jeff Bridges (whose Sleeping Tapes album is my top recommendation in the category). And, as noted above, there’s been a real blossoming of drone music that spans multiple genres—I hear it in soundtracks, in ambient music, in classical music, in electronica, and other categories, where the various components are different, but the overall effect is similar. What I find curious is how seldom the word lullaby is ever applied to this music, even though the sound textures (and sometimes the stated purpose) of these tracks are very aligned with music used to soothe infants.

(10)  The obvious explanation is shame. Adults don’t want to be caught listening to lullabies. In my opinion, this also explains why musicologists don’t want to specialize in this subject, and music historians don’t want to mention it. There’s an opportunity here—not just for scholarship on lullabies, but for a broader study of how shame impacts music education and music criticism. I’ve found the same reaction to love songs, which are the most popular type of song—and have been for a thousand years—yet sometimes seem to elicit embarrassment among those who teach or write about music professionally. If we can’t address these significant categories of music-making openly and honestly, we will never really grasp the role of song in human life.

So let’s give the humble lullaby some love. And maybe even decide it isn’t so humble after all. Entire societies were raised on these songs. And the individuals who heard them as babies relied on them, decades later, as parents and grandparents. Not even the symphony or fugue or sonata can boast such endurance or efficacy. It’s time we recognized that fact, maybe even celebrated it.