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Lullabies have been a curiously common feature in the history of humanity. In fact, it was found that in 315 societies, 28 languages, and 45 countries around the world, researchers found love songs, religious songs, healing songs … and lullabies (Mehr et al., 2019).

Looking at such a wide variety of influences, this paper (with 19 different authors) found that all of these societies:

  • use words in their songs
  • use dancing

While they found that all musical systems:

  • use tonality (relationship of music notes, sounding bright, sad etc.)
  • balance repetitive and unexpected melodies and rhythms

This means that most people can work out, just from the sound, whether songs are lullabies, religious, love songs or healing songs, because they are slow or fast, have fewer or more different notes, and have rhythms that make you feel like moving in different ways in response to the beat. Lullabies have been found to have slower beats closer to the relaxed heart rate with fewer notes, promoting soothing feelings of relaxation.

In response to these findings on how soothing lullabies can be, many studies have been done to see whether there is an effect on the body that can be measured. This year, a study was done (Namjoo et al., 2022) with 90 neonatal babies over 14 days. Babies in neonatal wards are known to have high stress responses, including high heart rates, low oxygen levels and poor or disturbed sleep quality, which all affect the body’s ability to heal and grow normally.

This study group involved 3 groups: one group of babies was played recorded lullabies for 20 minutes every day; one had their mothers singing to them for 20 minutes every day; and the final group only listened to the medical machinery of medical monitors and machinery, and adult conversation. Before the musical experiment, all the babies had similar heart rates, oxygen levels and sleep quality, but after the 14 days, researchers saw a significant difference in the results.

Both the recorded and live lullaby-singing improved all of these physiological areas, especially when recorded singing was played while babies slept, although researchers were unsure whether live singing was more or less effective than recorded singing. This suggests that these babies would heal faster, grow more normally, and potentially spend less time in hospital than those without this musical interaction. And that this musical interaction encourages a form of relaxation on a primitive level that does not require language or understanding to benefit from it.

We know that many parents use music playing softly in the background, with some even using white noise (or brown noise, apparently helpful for people on the autistic spectrum). So here are a few well-known lullabies to get you started, from all four corners of the British Isles:

Rock-a-Bye Baby (English)

https://youtu.be/wYstuzW7aYs 

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetops
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all

Rock-a-bye baby up in the sky
On a soft cloud, ‘tis easy to fly
When the cloud bursts, the raindrops will fall
And baby comes down to mother once more

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetops
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And mummy will catch you, cradle and all
This song has a number of unconfirmed histories, ranging from early sightings of native American practices, to old English practices, but all agree that baby will be safe.

Suo-gân (Sleep My Baby) (Welsh)

https://youtu.be/G3J_CzZlb6A 

Sleep my baby, rest my loved one
Softly slumber now with me
Clasped in mother’s arms so tender
Warm in mother’s love for thee
Naught shall ever come to harm thee
While my loving watch I keep
Thou my pretty one shall slumber
While I sing thy lullaby

This is the English wording for this lovely Welsh lullaby, sung by so many wonderful singers and choirs – and very singable for everyday people like us, too!

Toora Loora Loora (Irish)

https://youtu.be/y4JHBwdvNV8 

Over in Killarney, many years ago
Me mother sang a song to me
In tones so sweet and low
Just a simple little ditty, in her good old Irish way
And I’d give the world if she could sing
That song to me today

Toora, loora, loora, Toora, loora, lai
Toora, loora, loora, hush now, don’t you cry
Toora, loora, loora, Toora, loora, lai
That’s and Irish lullaby

Oft in dreams I wander to that cot again
I feel her arms a-huggin’ me as when she held me then
And I hear her voice a hummin’
To me as in days of yore
When she used to rock me fast asleep
Outside the cabin door

This classic Irish lullaby also has unknown origins, having been sung for so long by so many, but like so many lullabies, talks about baby feeling safe and reassured with mother. 

Ally Bally Bee (Scottish)

https://youtu.be/kfZAuCUmkKI 

Ally Bally, Ally Bally Bee
Sitting on your mammy’s knee
Greetin’ for another bawbee
To buy some Coulter’s candy

Poor wee Jeannie’s getting awfa thin
A rickle o’ banes covered ower wi’ skin
Noo she’s gettin’ a wee double chin
Wi’ sookin’ Coulter’s candy

Mammy throw me ma penny doon
Here’s auld Coulter comin’ roon
Wi’ a basker on his croon
Selling Coulter’s candy

When you grow up a man to be
You’ll work hard, and ye’ll sail the sea
And bring hame pennies for yir faither n me
Tae buy mere Coulter’s candy

The story goes that Coulter was actually a man called Coltart who sold a particular candy that he balanced on his head. The recipe is long forgotten, but the song remains!

These lovely lullabies remind us of the privilege it is to be human, the joy we give and receive by singing to another, and the comfort we can bring each other at any age, just by being together. So sing!

References

Mehr, S. A., Singh, M., Knox, D., Ketter, D. M., Pickens-Jones, D., Atwood, S., Lucas, C., Jacoby, N., Egner, A. A., Hopkins, E. J., Howard, R. M., Hartshorne, J. K., Jennings, M. V., Simson, J., Bainbridge, C. M., O’Donnell, T. J., Krasnow, M. M., & Glowacki, L. (2019). “Universality and diversity in human song”. Science, 336(6468). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aax0868 

Namjoo, R., Mehdipour-Rabori, R., Bagherian, B., & Nematollahi, M. (2022). “Comparing the effectiveness of mother’s live lullaby and recorded lullaby on physiological responses and sleep of preterm infants: A clinical trial study”. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, 19(1), 121–129. https://doi.org/10.1515/jcim-2020-0507 

 

About the author:

Musician, researcher and author, Frances Turnbull, is a self-taught guitarist who has played contemporary and community music from the age of 12. She delivers music sessions to the early years and KS1. Trained in the music education techniques of Kodály (specialist singing), Dalcroze (specialist movement) and Orff (specialist percussion instruments), she has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (Open University) and a Master’s degree in Education (University of Cambridge). She runs a local community choir, the Bolton Warblers, and delivers the Sound Sense initiative aiming for “A choir in every care home” within local care and residential homes, supporting health and wellbeing through her community interest company.

She has represented the early years music community at the House of Commons, advocating for recognition for early years music educators, and her table of progressive music skills for under 7s features in her curriculum books.

Frances is the author of “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“ “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“, published by Routledge, August 2017.

www.musicaliti.co.uk

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