Some genres of music developed in relationship to a certain situation. One example of this is the lullaby, which originally designated a composition for voice intended to lull a child to sleep. The lullaby was sung by the person holding, rocking, or sitting beside the child, and often was in second person, addressing the baby directly. The soothing music of a lullaby has also been used to calm or distract a child who felt upset or unwell.
It is typical for a lullaby to be characterized by gentleness, sweetness, and repeated words meant to be formulaic rather than attention-getting. A lullaby may tell a story or comfort a child with promises of safety or treats upon awakening. The lullaby “Hush Little Baby” tells the story of a series of gifts from the parent to the child, aimed ultimately at praising the baby. “All Through the Night,” a translation by Harold Boulton of a traditional Welsh lullaby “Ar Hyd Y Nos,” promises the child that the parent will be watching all night to keep the child safe as it sleeps. Typical English versions of “Brahms’ Lullaby,” from the German by Johannes Brahms, express similar sentiments.
The lullaby from the opera Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck, with words by Adelheid Wette after the Grimm brothers fairy tale, is a lullaby sung by a child who takes comfort in being protected by guardian angels all around the bedside. “Tender Shepherd" from the musical Peter Pan, which has music by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden, Carolyn Leigh, and Adolph Green, is another example of the children singing the goodnight song. The shepherd likely refers to Jesus’ parable of the sheep in the New Testament, with the likely meaning that the children will be watched over by God as they sleep.
Other lullabies may not be so calming and gentle, however. “Rock-a-bye, Baby,” tells of a child’s cradle falling out of a treetop. Wolves make appearances in a number of Italian lullabies, and some lullabies from various locations make references to folktales of the culture. There are even lamentation lullabies about the baby or someone else being stolen or the mother being tricked and having to give up her child.
As time has passed, the genre of the lullaby has also come out of the intimate setting at the child’s bedside, and come into the concert hall, with the development of art music lullabies, including the pieces known as berceuse and wiegenlied. These pieces may either be vocal, instrumental, or for accompanied voice.