AskDefine | Define lullaby

Dictionary Definition



1 a quiet song intended to lull a child to sleep [syn: cradlesong, berceuse]
2 a quiet song that lulls a child to sleep [syn: cradlesong] [also: lullabied]

User Contributed Dictionary



From lullen, to lull + bye. First recorded circa 1560.



  1. A soothing song to lull children to sleep.

Related terms


a soothing song to lull children to sleep

Extensive Definition

A lullaby is a soothing song, usually sung to children before they go to sleep. They originated in England in the late 1300s. The idea is that the song sung by a familiar and beautiful voice will lull the child to sleep. Lullabies written by established classical composers are often given the form-name berceuse, which is French for lullaby, or cradle song.
The most famous berceuse of all is Johannes Brahms' lied Wiegenlied (cradle song), called Brahms' Lullaby in English. Brahms wrote his "Wiegenlied" for a Bertha Faber, on the occasion of the birth of her second son. The English lyrics are similar to the original German.
Typically a berceuse is in triple meter, or in a compound meter such as 6/8. Tonally most berceuses are simple, often merely alternating tonic and dominant harmonies: since the intended effect is to put someone to sleep, wild chromaticism would be somewhat out of character. Another characteristic of the berceuse--for no reason other than convention--is a tendency to stay on the "flat side" --for example the berceuses by Chopin, Liszt and Balakirev are all in D♭.
Frédéric Chopin's Opus 57 is a berceuse for solo piano. Other famous examples of the genre include Maurice Ravel's Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré for violin and piano; the Berceuse élégiaque by Ferruccio Busoni; the Berceuse from the opera Jocelyn by Benjamin Godard; the Berceuse by Igor Stravinsky which is featured in the Firebird ballet, and Lullaby for String Quartet by George Gershwin. The English composer Nicholas Maw's orchestral nocturne The World in the Evening is subtitled 'lullaby for large orchestra'. Contemporary American composer Todd Goodman's Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra includes a "Berceuse" as the second movement. In terms of pop music, famous lullabies include "Good Night" by The Beatles and "Lullaby (Good Night My Angel)" by Billy Joel.
Asia has its own versions of the lullaby as well. In Tamil (a language of southern India and northern Sri Lanka), a lullaby is called a thaalattu (thal means "tongue"). A melodious sound is created by frequent movement of the tongue at the beginning of the song, hence the name.
But most notably is the use of the oyayi in the Philippines, also called huluna in Batangas. In fact, the use of a song in putting a baby to sleep is so popular that almost every mother in the province is said to have composed at least one lullaby for her child.

Hush Little Baby

Another famous lullaby, generally known as "Hush Little Baby" makes many promises to the child if it will only be quiet and go to sleep, a sentiment with which parents will be familiar:
Hush little baby, don't say a word,
Papa's going to buy you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird don't sing,
Papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring.
and goes on to promise "a looking glass", "a horse and coach", and other treasures. The structure is simple enough for parents to ad-lib further verses as required. This song has had the unusual distinction of two separate manifestations as a popular song, first as "Bo Diddley" and then, in a near-fugue arrangement, as "Mockingbird", a hit first for the brother-and-sister team, Inez and Charlie Foxx in 1963, and then, for then husband and wife, James Taylor and Carly Simon in 1974, singing the Foxx arrangement. Toby Keith and his teenage daughter Krystal covered the song in 2004.
Singer James Hetfield recites a variaton of "Hush Little Baby" in the 1991 Metallica song Enter Sandman.
In 2005 rapper Eminem adapted "Mockingbird" into a song for his daughter (see: Mockingbird_(song)).
Sylvia Long published a book with a less materialistic, more naturalistic version of the song that begins:
Hush little baby, don’t say a word,
Mama’s going to show you a hummingbird.
If that hummingbird should fly,
Mama’s going to show you the evening sky.
and continues in a similar vein.


A famous lullaby is "Summertime" from the Porgy and Bess musical of 1935. Sometimes it is also referred to as the Gershwin Lullaby. Although many of the jazz improvizations of this song have "wild chromaticism", the original is quite soothing, and somewhat slow and melancholy, in natural minor. Gershwin was actually inspired to write the song after hearing a Ukrainian lullaby, Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon (A Dream Passes by the Window) in 1926. The recurring gentle rocking back and forth between A-minor 6th and E-seventh, in the orchestral strings version, is simultaneously both sad and comforting. Additionally, many parents sing this song (unaccompanied) to their children, at bed time.
Summertime, and the living is easy
Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich, and your ma is good looking
So hush little baby, don't you cry.
One of these mornings, you're gonna rise up singing
You're gonna spread your wings as you take the sky
But till that morning, there's nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mammy standing nigh

All the Pretty Little Horses

Another famous lullaby is "All the Pretty Little Horses" which many children simply know by the first three words of the lyrics: "Hush a bye". It was originally written by an African American slave, who could not take care of her baby, because she was too busy taking care of her master's child, so she would sing this song to her master's child. Originally, the lyrics were "birds and butterflies, peck at his eyes" but were changed to "birds and butterflies, flutter 'round his eyes" to make the lullaby less violent for younger children. Like Summertime this song is also played in natural minor.
Don't you cry
Go to sleep my little ba-by;
When you wake,
you shall have,
all the pretty little horses.
Dapples and Greys,
Pintos and Bays,
Coach and six little horses.
Don't you cry
Go to sleep my little baby
When you wake,
you shall have,
all the pretty little horses.
Way down yonder
in the meadow
poor little baby cries mama
birds and butterflies
flutter 'round his eyes
poor little baby cries mama
Don't you cry
Go to sleep my little ba-by;
When you wake,
you shall have,
all the pretty little horses.
The folk group Peter, Paul & Mary recorded a version called "Hush-A-Bye" in 1963.
Pop artist Kenny Loggins recorded a version called "All the Pretty Little Ponies" for his 1994 CD "Return to Pooh Corner."
Apocalyptic Folk band Current 93 recorded two versions of "All the Pretty Little Horses" for their 1996 album of the same name, one sung by Nick Cave, and Coil included a version on their final album The Ape of Naples.
lullaby in Catalan: Cançó de bressol
lullaby in Danish: Berceuse
lullaby in German: Wiegenlied
lullaby in Spanish: Nana (canción de cuna)
lullaby in French: Berceuse
lullaby in Hebrew: שיר ערש
lullaby in Italian: Ninna_nanna_(canto)
lullaby in Luxembourgish: Berceuse
lullaby in Dutch: Slaaplied
lullaby in Japanese: 子守歌 (ショパン)
lullaby in Norwegian: Berceuse
lullaby in Occitan (post 1500): Breçairòla
lullaby in Polish: kołysanka
lullaby in Portuguese: Cantiga de ninar
lullaby in Simple English: Lullaby
lullaby in Swedish: Berceuse
lullaby in Thai: เพลงกล่อมเด็ก
lullaby in Turkish: Ninni

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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