Lullaby Blessings: Help for Families Stuck at Home

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Susie Marie, PhD

Musical Messages® – April 1, 2020

As infants, when we felt irritable and fussy, or were unable to relax and fall asleep, our mothers would wrap their arms around us, hold us close, and sing lullabies to us. These softly sung rhyming words, with their slow, steady, repetitive patterns of simple melodies, delivered with high pitched, deep emotional expression, in swaying triple meter, were the medicine we needed to drift into peaceful slumber.

The mother’s voice, la voix maternelle, has unmatched power to influence the growth and development of her young. Even before birth babies can recognize their mother’s voices, and as infants they prefer the voices of their mothers above all others. Mothers across the centuries and around the globe have used the power of their voices to influence their children through lullabies.

Lullabies are the vehicles through which mothers first teach their children important family stories and traditions, and share timeless cultural knowledge and values. Mothers also express their own troubles and worries, reassuring themselves and their little ones, through lullabies.

Gregor Roy MacGregor of Clan Gregor fought for years to reclaim family land that Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, had granted to the chief of the Clan Campbell. When he was captured and killed in 1570, his widow composed and sang the lullaby Ba Mo Leanabh to her son. You can listen to her mournful tale here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7dW 1FtfS9Q

She sang of her plight while comforting her child, “On hush-a-bye, my little baby. Hush, my little baby, hush. Oh hush-abye, my little baby. My own little baby will go to sleep. Though I am without a flock of sheep, And the others all have sheep, Though I am without a flock of sheep, You, little baby, can go to sleep.”

She also sang of the strength of her devotion as she relayed the tragic truth of her child’s father’s fate, “Darling, of the people of the great world, They spilt your blood yesterday, They put your head on an oaken post. A little way from your corpse I breathlessly climbed the great mountain, I climbed and I descended. I would put the hair of my head under your feet, and the skin of my two hands.”

No matter what the circumstances of her life, a mother can establish a secure bond with her child through lullabies, which provide stabilizing comfort by modulating arousal and regulating behavior. Research on premature infants provides some of the most compelling evidence of the benefits of lullabies. Their breathing and heart rates improve, feeding and sleeping increase, they get better faster, and they are discharged sooner than babies deprived of “live” lullabies.

The electronic delivery of lullabies lacks impact for babies in hospitals and in homes. Babies want real, live females to sing their lullabies. One of the beautiful features of lullabies is that the lyrics are customized, adding special endearments and unique details, sometimes with silly words and intonations, that express love and affection, and the worth of each individual child. Babies need the intimate, personal interaction of traditional lullabies that mothers through-out the world have provided for centuries.

Screened presentations of lullabies, such as those available through Apps and YouTube, are generically produced, lack understanding of children’s social and developmental needs, and are promoted by unscientific testimonials. These productions have corrupted the classic definition of lullabies. They use male voices and instruments, and instead of lulling a baby to sleep, they function primarily as ways to settle a baby by signaling a specific family routine.

Children whose mothers sing lullabies to them through-out the first year of life have significant advantages over children deprived of such a rich musical heritage. Lullabied babies show greater growth across multiple developmental realms. Music activates many parts of the brain simultaneously, and establishes strong foundations for speech and language, mathematical and spatial skills, sensory and creative development. Dr. Nina Kraus of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory of Northwestern University aptly describes music as the “quitessential multimodal activity.”

The Polish composer Frederic Chopin gave the world a new musical form in 1844 when he completed his, a cradle song. (Le berceau is French for cradle.) He is thought to have been inspired by Louisetta, the child of his musician friend Pauline Viardot, and by a song from his childhood, “The moon now has risen, the dogs are asleep.”

German composer Johannes Brahms gave us his berceuse, Wiegenlied, a lied (art song) for piano and voice in 1868, which is best known as “Brahms Cradle Song,” one of his most popular works. He too was inspired by a friend who was a mother, Bertha Faber, when she gave birth to her second son. In 1877 Brahms incorporated this melody as the second theme of the first movement of his second symphony. The second theme begins at bar 82 and continues through-out the movement. You can hear that first movement here. https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=uJ3AOeNfWy4

Brahms original lyrics were, “Good evening, good night, With roses covered, with cloves adorned, Tomorrow morning, if God wills, you will wake again. Good evening, good night, By angels watched, who show you in your dream, the Christ-child’s tree. Sleep now blissfully and sweetly, see the paradise in your dreams.” These words express Brahms’ appreciation of the ultimate security a mother provides, by protecting her child even beyond death through faith.

Today we know this piece, so popular in music boxes, as “Brahms Lullaby,” that begins “Lullaby, and good night” and continues “Lay thee down now and rest. May thy slumber be blest.” Twentieth century American lyricist William Engvick created new, simpler words for the melody, giving us “Close Your Eyes.” You can enjoy Rosemary Clooney’s version here. https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=MOLOFTFatgc&feature=yo utu.be

In contrast to the peace and joy of the lullaby is the lament. A lament, as a passionate expression of grief that is prominent in Biblical texts, is an appeal to God for help. The initial wailing complaint is transformed through the process in which the petitioner addresses God, describes the suffering, pleads for divine assistance, expresses trust, and offers thanksgiving and gratitude, in anticipating of receiving relief.

Music therapists have developed “lullaments,” which combine both lullabies and laments, to help hospitalized children and their parents, and adult cancer patients in palliative care. Lullabies, which focus on attachment, nurturance, and growth, used together with laments, which emphasize detachment, sorrow, and loss, can help patients cope with uncertainty and fear of death. As our nation contends with the crises and tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic, lullaments can be an important resource to help ease suffering.

Lullabies, however, capture the blessings and fundamental freedom of a strong maternal bond. Perhaps we all need to envision ourselves embraced in a loving mother’s arms, lulled into peaceful sleep by the sounds of her sweet lullabies. Though the link below takes you to a lessthan-ideal digital format where I share a childhood memory and sing a lullaby inspired by roses, I hope that my Musical Messages® will help bring us emotionally close as we remain physically distant for the health of country.

Musical Messages®

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