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What is a Lullaby?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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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.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for WiseGeek, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By momothree — On Dec 31, 2010

@snowywinter: I have heard several different variations to the “hush little baby” lullaby. The first few verses are always the same. Here are a few different endings that I found:

If that billy goat won’t pull, Papa’s gonna buy you a cart and bull.

If that cart and bull turn over, Papa’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover.

If that dog named Rover won’t bark, Pap’s gonna buy you a horse and cart.

If that horse and cart fall down, You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.

So, hush little baby, don’t you cry, Cause Mommy loves you and so do I.

Another ending that I found goes like this:

And if that cart and bull won’t go, Papa’s gonna buy you a cow named Flo.

And if that cow don’t have a bell, Papa’s gonna buy you a carousel.

And if that carousel won’t go ‘round, You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.

By googie98 — On Dec 30, 2010

@snowywinter: The words to “Hush little baby” are:

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

And if that mockingbird won’t sing, Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.

And if that diamond ring turns brass, Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass.

And if that looking glass gets broke, Papa’s gonna buy you a billy goat.

And if that billy goat won’t pull, Papa’s gonna buy you a cart and bull.

And if that cart and bull fall down, you’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.

By SnowyWinter — On Dec 28, 2010

My sister and I are planning a baby shower for a friend and we are going to play different "baby" songs. We have completely forgotten the words to the hush little baby lullaby. Can anyone help us out with that?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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