The History of the Lullaby

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Podcast Transcript

There are few things that are truly universal across all cultures and throughout history. These things are often so obvious that we overlook them and forget how they are things that make us human. 

One such thing which seems so simple yet actually has profound origins: singing children to sleep.

Learn more about the lullaby and how it is one of the things which all humanity has in common, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I keep a running list of ideas for podcast episodes. I currently have 451 ideas on that list. 

This episode was not one of them.

My friend Jodi posted a link about the subject of lullabies and why no one ever writes about them? 

I figured I have a podcast that is literally about everything, so I said. 


This is a subject that I knew nothing about, and to be totally honest, a subject that I might never have done an episode on if it was just me coming up with ideas. 

So, I dove in not knowing what to expect, and it turns out that the subject is actually fascinating. 

Let’s start with the real basics. Many primates will cradle their children in the same way that humans do. You might have seen photos of an orangutang or a chimpanzee holding their children in a way that makes them look human. 

However, there is something humans can do that other primates can’t do: sing. 

When anthropologists study ancient humans, they are often stuck analyzing what they can find. This usually ends up being artifacts like spearheads and cutting tools.

However, many anthropologists think that the first tool that humans invented might have been a baby sling. 

Human babies are really high maintenance. Unlike bison, for example, it takes years for a human child to get to a point where they can walk long distances. How did nomadic people travel if they had small children? They had to carry them. 

This innovation might have been more important than many other inventions because, without it, humans can’t move to follow game animals.

Carrying children in a sling would have resulted in a need to soothe crying children without using your hands. This would have been the origin of using a voice to try and soothe children. 

One of the things that researchers have noticed is that mothers singing to babies is a universal characteristic of all people. The songs might be different in different cultures, but if you heard a lullaby in a different language, you’d probably recognize it as such almost immediately.

The slow melodic tones might be similar to the ears of a newborn as the sound of a mother’s heartbeat in the womb. 

Lullabies usually are very simple in their melody and are designed to be sung without an instrument. They usually have 6/8 time signature and usually no more than 5 notes. 

The word lullaby has two different stories for its origin. 

The first comes from Middle English. Lullaby is a combination of “lullen” which means to lull, and by, which just means near. The first documented use of the word was in 1560. 

The other theory is that it comes from Hebrew. It supposedly comes from “Lilith-Abi”, which means “Lilith be gone”. Lilith was the name of a demon in Jewish tradition and symbols with “Lilith-Abi” would be placed around a crib.

The Middle English explanation is probably more likely just because, the word lullaby is an English word. I mean, the word “lull” is right there in it.

What is sung in lullabies also tends to have a commonality. They tend to have very dark themes. 

The oldest recorded lullaby comes from a 5,000-year-old Babylonian clay tablet written in cuneiform. 

Here is a rough translation of this earliest lullaby:

Little baby in the dark house,

You have seen the sun rise.

Why are you crying?

Why are you screaming?

You have disturbed the house god.

Who has disturbed me? says the house god.

It is the baby who has disturbed you.

Who scared me? says the house god.

The baby has disturbed you, the baby has scared you.

Making noises like a drunkard who cannot sit still on his stool.

He has disturbed your sleep.

The Luo people of Kenya have a lullaby that says “Rock, rock, rock….The baby who cries will be eaten by a hyena,”

These threats and macabre subject matters might have had a purpose. While an infant wouldn’t have been able to understand, there would be a reason for the parents to not want a baby to cry if the cries could give away a location. Having a safety warning as some of the first things you tell a child isn’t a bad idea. 

Even if it isn’t an explicit warning, there are still often themes of sadness in lullabies. This probably comes from the high infant mortality which used to exist and a mother’s fear of losing a child at such a young age.

A lullaby is also one of the first exposure a child might have to words and human speech.

The benefits of lullabies aren’t just cultural or educational.

Researchers have found that lullabies have actual clinical benefits to babies. 

Newborns seem to have an innate sensitivity to music. It isn’t just any music, however. It primarily is the sounds that are those in lullabies and in particular, lullabies sung by someone in person. 

One study done by the New York-Presbyterian Hospital ??on babies in neonatal intensive care units found that lullaby music steadies their heart rate and breathing, and improves the feeding of premature babies.

Another study by the University of Florida found that premature babies who received lullaby therapy left the hospital sooner than other babies.

Yet another study found that babies who heard lullabies felt less pain when getting intravenous injections. 

One other interesting, but not surprising findings is that infants have a preference for their own mothers. Singing to a child can increase bonding between a mother and a child. 

Likewise, another study did recordings of mothers singing songs with their children present, and then the same song without their children present. A group of random listeners could identify which songs were sung to actual children. 

There are a few lullabies that are so well known that they require a bit of backstory of their own.

Probably the most famous lullaby in the world is the one written by Johannes Brahms. Commonly known as Brahams Lullaby, the actual name of the piece, which is hardly ever used, is “Wiegenlied”.

Here’s a short clip if you still don’t know what I’m talking about.

It was written by Brahams in 1868 and it is one of his best-known works. 

There were actually lyrics originally written in German. The English translation of the lyrics are:

Good evening, good night, 

With roses covered, 

With cloves adorned, 

Slip under the covers. 

Tomorrow morning, if God wills, 

you will wake once again.

The other one is of course Rock-a-Bye Baby.

The song first appeared in a 1765 book called Mother Goose’s Melody.

Here too is a few bars in case you don’t know what I’m talking about.

As I mentioned above, lullabies often have very dark themes, and this is no exception. It’s about a baby falling out of a tree. 

There are all sorts of theories as to what the real meaning of the song is, and it is incredible just how varied the explanations are for the real meaning of the song.

One theory is that the baby represents the Egyptian god Horus.

Another holds that it is an allegory about English King James II.

Yet another theory holds that it is an English corruption of the French phrase, Hush! There’s the wolf!

Finally, there is a theory that it was written by a woman on the Mayflower who wrote it to describe how native American women rocked babies in birch cradles. 

No one consensus as to what the song really means. 

If you are like me, you probably never gave much thought to the idea that singing to a baby could have roots so deep in human history. Newborn children may be biologically attuned to respond to a mother’s voice, we have probably been singing lullabies for hundreds of thousands of years, and they are something that is found in every culture on Earth. 

Lullabies are truly a universal of the human experience.