First Songs, First Sounds.
Often one’s earliest memory is being held by your parents, feeling warm and safe and being sung to sleep. Perhaps you were rocked in their arms – this would be an early memory of rhythm. But the main memory will be of words you do not understand that come to you as sound and feeling. These early songs are called lullabies or cradle songs and they are literally your “cradle of sound.” The sounds are repetitive, slow, simple and soothing, even slightly hypnotic and often surprisingly a little melancholy.
There are other aids to comfort and sleep, of course, that can supplement the song and its sounds – the soft furry animal, the favorite blanket, your favorite books in your bed, a mobile over the crib – but the sound memory stays.
Research shows that singing to your children early in their lives can have a huge effect on their development musically. In studies, babies can be seen responding by cooing and moving in response to “the pulse and bar structure” of the parent’s songs. This is an early form of improvisation between parent and child. Also, lullabies (even the “lull” part of the word is calming) go deep into our psyches, affecting our sense of intimacy, empathy and emotional development.
Lullabies help develop our communication skills, affect our concentration patterns, they can calm and reassure an upset or sick child, and modify behavior. The list goes on.
Lullabies have existed since ancient times and across many cultures. Everyone should have a lullaby somewhere in their past. These early sounds are part of our individual sonic inheritance and get passed on from generation to generation. They enter our dreamscapes and are part of the building blocks of our imagination.
What lullabies do you remember? Here are a couple of lullabies you may know. A surprising number of lullabies were not initially for sending children to sleep at all – take “Rock a Bye Baby on the Tree Top.” This song is probably the most popular lullaby in the world and translated into many languages. The song is traceable to a book called “Mother Goose’s Melody” published c. 1765 and had a scary footnote “This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.” It is thought to be originally a satirical ballad with a moral lesson for adults. Listen to the imperative of the lyrics – if you do not go to sleep you will fall out of a tree. A lullaby from Kenya goes one horrific step further and threatens the child if you cry and do not sleep you will be eaten by a hyena.
Johannes Brahms’s lullaby “Roses Whisper Good Night,” was based on a German folk poem and dedicated to Bertha Faber a friend of Brahms on the birth of her second child in 1868 and was in part a love song to her.
“No Woman No Cry.” Originally a reggae ballad from Jamaica now used as a lullaby in my family. “No Woman No Cry” was sung by Bob Marley, the Rastafarian singer, songwriter and musician and his group The Wailers. The song was performed first in 1974 and is number 37 on the Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” with its lulling rocking rhythm. This song has a personal guarantee to send small babies to sleep.
If you wish to know more about lullabies and their history the pioneers in this field are Peter and Iona Opie with their classic book “The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes” published in 1951. There is also Nina Perry’s article for the BBC called “The Universal Language of Lullabies” that introduce you to the work of Colwyn Trevethan, Professor of Child Psychology, Edinburgh University.
What sends your child to sleep at night? We asked Me-j’s friends this question and had a variety of responses, but the common thread was “sound” in the form of music or words. These repeated sounds are part of a child’s nightly ritual and make them feel safe in the dark.
Peter, our lead software developer’s, dad sang him to sleep with Too-la-too- ra-loo-ri, which Peter liked and Penthouse Serenade (which he did not like, but never told his dad). Steve C. who plays in an early music ensemble in the UK was brought up on a farm, remembers his mother sang to him all the time, but not at bedtime. His lullabies were the sound of birds and sheep on the farm. Steve’s grownup day job is an executive in a big company and while at a conference recently, everyone complained about the noise of the sheep during the night in the fields keeping them awake, meanwhile, Steve slept soundly!
Liz and her daughter Alice have a family “sound” handed down from generation to generation – The sound is just one made up word, sung softly and repeatedly “Bee-luh, Bee-luh, Bee-luh” with a slow swaying rhythm. Natalie sings to Evie, who is two years old, the cradle song “Hush little baby don’t say a word.” Steve, our founder, remembers the sounds of the police and ambulance sirens in Brooklyn and a special book, “The Little Engine that Could” read to him by his mother and “Where’s Waldo,” which he kept under his bed.
Ruth, who lives in Wales, has a family lullaby “Si her lwli mabi.” Ruth sang this to her three children as did her mother and grandmother before her. She sent me the YouTube video.
Karen was afraid at night in the dark so she recited a prayer. “I pray the Lord my soul to keep” and felt safe because she heard the sound of her father playing the guitar downstairs. Will arranged all his favorite Ladybird books around the sides of his bed and his family lullaby was “Roses Whisper Goodnight.” For Gaynor and Tim’s daughter it was a voice of Stephen Fry in a Harry Potter audio book before sleep. And for Sophia and Leonidas it was the reading of one book “Goodnight Moon” every night which they soon knew by heart.
Please send us your favorite lullaby.