The universal language of lullabies


Babylonia: One of the first written lullabies

No-one knows when the first lullaby was sung, but this is one of the first ever written down

From British Museum collection and courtesy of the trustees. Reading and photo, Richard Dumbrill

India: The Moon Uncle

The moon and stars are a popular theme in many lullabies

Music courtesy of Spitalfields Music and Vital Arts. Photo: THINKSTOCK

UK: Rocking the baby

Many lullabies are about rocking, and have a slow, soothing lilt aimed at mimicking a baby’s experience in the womb

Photo: THINKSTOCK. Sung by Rachel Nicholson

Kenya: Watch out for the hyena!

This lullaby offers a few words of practical advice to babies living in the wilds of rural Kenya

Photo: THINKSTOCK. Sung by Joseph Odhiambo, BBC Swahili service

Sweden: A lullaby to help learn language

Some lullabies are educational, and help introduce a range of sounds to help language learning

Photo: THINKSTOCK. Sung by Karl Sjoquist

Iraq: A sad desert lullaby

Lullabies are sometimes melancholy - like this one from Iraq, which is also sung at funerals

Photo: THINKSTOCK. Sung by Malak Aladami


Four millennia ago an ancient Babylonian wrote down a lullaby sung by a mother to her child. It may have got the baby to sleep, but its message is far from soothing - and this remains a feature of many lullabies sung around the world today.

Deeply etched into a small clay tablet, which fits neatly into the palm of a hand, are the words of one of the earliest lullabies on record, dating from around 2,000BC.

The writing is in cuneiform script - one of the first forms of writing - and would have been carefully shaped by a Babylonian scribe, with a stylus made of reed, in what is modern-day Iraq.

It's a rather menacing lullaby, in which the baby is chastised for disturbing the house god with its crying - and threatened with repercussions.

Frightening themes were typical of lullabies of the era, says Richard Dumbrill, a leading expert on ancient music with the British Museum in London, where the tablet is kept.

Start Quote

They're like advice columns for babies”

End Quote Zoe Palmer Musician

"They try to tell the child that he has made a lot of noise, that he woke up the demon, and if he doesn't shut up right now, the demon will eat him."

If this sounds more scary than sleep-inducing, it so happens that many lullabies - including those sung today - have dark undertones.

"Rock, rock, rock," begins one popular lullaby sung by the Luo people in western Kenya, before warning starkly, "The baby who cries will be eaten by a hyena," - an actual possibility in some parts of the country.

The well-known UK lullaby, Rock-a-bye-Baby, also contains danger, warning in the nicest possible way that the baby and cradle will drop from the bough of a tree.

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Four generations of one family in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Photo by Lily Al-Tai

Night-time has always been associated with darkness and fear and this may go some way to explaining the threatening themes in some lullabies, says Sally Goddard Blythe, author of a number of books on child development, and director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology.

But all lullabies - even the scary ones - she says, are rooted in "love, tenderness and caring".

Many lullabies, regardless of the meaning of their words, possess a peaceful hypnotic quality. Others are mournful or dark, like a lament.

Some are "telling you the history of the country, or telling you how you should or shouldn't run your life - kind of like advice columns for babies," says Zoe Palmer, a musician working on a lullabies project at the Royal London Hospital.

Palmer works with new mothers at the hospital, as part of a group of musicians, helping them to learn and share existing lullabies - as well as creating new ones.

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Lullabies belong to the instinctive nature of motherhood”

End Quote Richard Dumbrill Archaeomusicologist

It's a very diverse community - with parents from China, Bangladesh and India, as well as Italy, Spain, France and Eastern Europe - but she has found that lullabies are remarkably similar across cultures.

"Wherever you go in the world, women use the same tones, the same sort of way of singing to their babies," she says. Many lullabies are very basic, she notes, with just a few words repeated again and again.

Rhythmically, there are shared patterns too. Lullabies are usually in triple metre or 6/8 time, giving them a "characteristic swinging or rocking motion," says Sally Goddard Blythe. This is soothing because it mimics the movement a baby experiences in the womb as a mother moves.

As well as helping a baby to sleep, lullabies may serve and educational purpose.

Singing with a baby is a natural and effective way of sharing new words and sounds, says Colwyn Trevarthen, professor of child psychology at the University of Edinburgh and vice-president of the British Association for Early Childhood Education.

Mother's voice: An 'acoustic bridge'

A mother and baby in Kenya

A baby can hear sounds from around the 24th week of pregnancy - but they are muffled and much narrower in range than when they emerge in the outside world, says Sally Goddard-Blythe (4,000 Hz is the top end, versus around 20,000 Hz after birth).

The mother's voice is described by Russian paediatrician Michael Lazarev as an "acoustic bridge" between the cocoon of the womb and the outside world.

Babies hear sounds from outside, but the mother's voice is the most powerful sound, says Goddard Blythe, "because it's heard both internally and externally - with her body acting like the sounding board or the resonator of sound".

For example, a Swedish lullaby, Mors Lilla Olle (Mother's Little Olle), has eight different vowel sounds, in four rhyming pairs.

For decades Trevarthen has been studying how mothers and babies interact in the early months. His research suggests that babies are innately musical, and have an excellent sense of rhythm.

Even when a mother is not actually singing to a baby she tends to speak in a musical way, he says, with the notes and inflections of her words going up and down, and a clear rhythm.

What's particularly "astonishing" he says, is how precisely the baby responds - in coos and gestures - often exactly in time with the pulse and bar structure of her sounds. Baby and mother "get in the groove," he says, like jazz musicians improvising.

"Human beings are born with all these very strong human capacities for being expressive in time," says Trevarthen.

In the 1920s, poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who studied Spanish lullabies, noted the "poetic character" and "depth of sadness" of many of them.

One of the best-known traditional Iraqi lullabies, is a particularly sad one, about the heart-ache of missing relatives. It's often sung at funerals and ends: "What a pain in my heart. Oh my son, how I wish to hear from my loved ones."

Lorca's theory - which many researchers today would agree with - was that a large part of the function of the lullaby is to help a mother vocalise her worries and concerns. In short, that they serve as therapy for the mother.

We know that lullabies were deemed important enough to be documented by the Babylonians 4,000 years ago, but how much longer will they survive?

A baby with headphones on

There are many factors that could threaten the continuation of the lullaby tradition - the array of gadgets to entertain and pacify a crying child, and the increased reliance on technology for communication, for example.

Perhaps the habit of singing is less a part of everyday life than it once was, where previous generations without televisions and computers would naturally come together to sing and share stories.

But my research on lullabies indicates they are still going strong - from Kenya, to Syria, to Morocco to the UK.

In a word...

"Lullaby" derives from two earlier English words that were both used to soothe children - "lulla" and "bye". They were combined in the late 1500s to refer specifically to a song used to calm down children or put them to sleep.

Source: Kory Stamper, Merriam-Webster

Archaeomusicologist Richard Dumbrill suspects there may be something intrinsic to the experience of raising a child which will guarantee the lullaby's survival in the future.

"The oldest lullaby is certainly when the first woman sang to her first child," he says. "I'm quite certain that lullabies belong to the instinctive nature of motherhood."

Reem Kelani, a British-born Palestinian singer, agrees.

"It's one of those universal things," she says. "Whenever I sing a lullaby, wherever I am in the world, there are always people who relate to it.

"It's the umbilical cord… and that's the exceptional power of a bedtime lullaby - it's timeless and it's forever."

Nina Perry was reporting for a BBC World Service documentary series on lullabies. Listen to The Language of Lullabies and Lullabies from the Arab World. Image of family in Morocco, Lily Al-Tai.

Additional reporting by Cordelia Hebblethwaite

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  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    93. Megan
    Drat whoever mentioned Puff the Magic Dragon... I've been singing it all day :)
    You are a braver lassie than me , i wanted to give his full name but feared reprisals,
    You weren't moderated, was there a bolt of lightning?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    The universal language of lullabies.
    My god pass me the sick bucket!
    I see the topic on "Christine Tacon named as supermarket ombudsman" on £69,000 a year.Part time, is closed.
    Could it be the same Christine Tacon who chairs the BBC Rural Affairs Advisory Committee?

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    "Your bible also tells you to go about your faith quietly, in private, because your god knows who is sincerely & who is just doing it publicly for effect....."

    Chapter and verse for not sharing childhood lullabies please...

    Yours sincerely ... (and publicly, for effect)

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.


    Lets hope that there choosing the latest from and britney (sarchasm)

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    85, I remember Cilla Black's Liverpool lullabye, although in my memory it was not a lullabye but more on the folk music side when at Uni in the late 60s, which brought back memories of childhood in Liverpool in the 50s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    When we were in dire straits my daddy also sang me this lullaby:

    Well he's daddy's little boy he plays with his toys
    He holds on to his daddy's hand
    His daddy says sonny you're a big strong boy
    You're gonna be a big strong man
    And they go play catch they go play ball
    They go take a walk along the sand
    Big strong daddy and a big strong boy
    Living in a big strong land

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    As someone who actively produces albums of lullabies, amongst other children's music, it's interesting to see that I'm not the only one to note their darker side. A lot of Scots lullabies, for example, focus on fathers lost at sea e.g. "Can Ye Sew Cushions", on mother's frustrations, e.g. "Dream Angus", or the threat inferred in "Wee Willie Winkie" to children not in bed by 8:00pm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    I used to sing my kids the Skye Boat Song and (for a bit of class) the wonderful lilting melody from the end of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony. The day my daughter's 2-year old voice came from the back seat singing Beethoven, I almost crashed the car.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    @90. I loved the magic dragon,

    My son did too until Puff sneezed and set his cot on fire....

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    I think they were originally crucial survival techniques developed by early hominids. Prolonged distress calls at night would jeopardise a tribe. The fact that lullabies work and are still going strong is a testamount to that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Drat whoever mentioned Puff the Magic Dragon... I've been singing it all day :)

  • Comment number 92.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    I sing Mumford and Sons - After the Storm to my little brother. It's quite a sad song, but the chorus is actually quite optimistic, and it has a quiet and beautiful just popped into my head from nowhere so I started to sing it to him. The more I think about it, the stranger it is that it should be used as a lullaby!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    50 soda pop, I loved the magic dragon, I was lucky, I didn't find out about the last verse until long after my children were too old for such things. There were a Danish couple who used to sing it on television Nina and Frederick, I think they left out the last verse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    80.OnlyOneDaveSmith - "Jesus loves me this I know
    For the bible tells me so
    Yes Jesus loves me
    Yes Jesus loves me
    For the bible tells me so"

    Your bible also tells you to go about your faith quietly, in private, because your god knows who is sincerely & who is just doing it publicly for effect.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I tried Kum by yah with my grand daughter. Someone’s singing, Lord, kum by yah. Someone’s dancing, reading, cooking, SLEEPING, Lord, kum by yah. When I ran out of things that someone was doing, Lord, I slipped in a repeat of the SLEEPING verse, but she said ‘Already had that one’. She was trying to guess what someone was going to do next,Lord and I was keeping her awake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    My 'song' for my son is the Carpenters 'Close to You'. He is now 4 and still wants it when he's ill - calling it the Birdy Song. My husband got confused one night and I got to the bedroom door to see my husband flapping his arms and my son looking VERY confused.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    My Dad used to wake us up occasionally by running into the room making bugle sounds and shouting the name of a Native american tribe (Apache, Arapahoe, etc, or just once Inuit(?))

    We'd be startled at being woken up, but the sight of a usually serious grown man acting the clown made up for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Lullabies with menace are still being produced. Anyone remember Cilla Black's Liverpool Lullaby
    "Oh you are a mucky kid
    Dirty as a dustbin lid
    If you're not asleep when the boozers close
    You'll get a belt from your dad."

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    This is great. History reveals time and time again that the grey stuff between our ears has not really changed since our earliest civilisations.

    I liked Aesop's Fables as kid personally.


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