The art of writing the perfect lullaby

“Who, me?”
“Who, me?”
Image: Jennifer Taylor (Courtesy of Carnegie Hall)
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Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is often quoted as having said that “music is the universal language of all mankind.” That’s especially true of babies, for whom music is a form of interaction that helps them learn and grow. And if there’s one kind of music that we know babies enjoy, it’s the lullaby.

Lullabies, songs that are used to lull someone to sleep, don’t have to be complicated. In fact, the best ones are simple and personal—and use the baby’s name to grab their attention.

Those are just some of the tips to be gleaned from singer-songwriter Emily Eagen on how to write a lullaby of your very own. The key, according to Eagen? “Let yourself dream.” If you’re stuck for a tune, simply swap in a familiar song like “Frère Jaques” or “Twinkle Twinkle Star”; then swap in lyrics about your child’s toys, what you did that day, or practice pointing out your baby’s ears, nose, and toes.

Eagen is one of the founding members of the Lullaby Project, an initiative that began in 2012 under the auspices of a musical outreach program at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In the six years the Lullaby Project has existed, it’s trained hundreds of pregnant women and new moms to write, and then sing, personalized lullabies to their babies by pairing them with music professionals. The project tries to reach women who may need a little extra help (pdf), like moms in correctional facilities or in temporary housing. It’s also released an entire album, Hopes & Dreams: The Lullaby Project, which features songs written by program participants and sung by renowned artists like Fiona Apple, Patti LuPone, and Natalie Merchant.

The program is grounded in science that tells us that writing songs for babies and singing them to children helps reduce moms’ stress about their pregnancies, create emotional bonds between parent and child, and encourage children’s cognitive development. Interactions between babies and caregivers who sing to them encourages the sort of “serve and return” relationships that help develop the brain’s neural connections, and babies who are exposed to music and rich language more generally develop better communication and sound processing skills as a result.

There’s a good reason babies love to be sung to: They are soothed by the sound of their parents’ voices. “One of the most salient voices in a child’s life is [a] mother’s voice,” a 2016 PNAS report explains. Fetuses can hear and respond to their mother’s voices starting as early as the third trimester of pregnancy, and hearing those voices helps babies develop social, cognitive and emotional skills. Once they’re born, babies prefer the sound of their mother’s voice to all others.

The lyrics in a lullaby also matter: The amount and quality of the language kids hear in their early years, between the ages of 0-5 years old, affects their language and brain development. And the nature of the music is also important: Studies have shown that premature babies prefer “lullaby-like songs” (defined as having a 6/8 meter and about five notes) to other kinds of music.

The best lullabies are simple and beneficial to both moms and their kids. So, Eagen explains, you shouldn’t over-stress what the perfect lullaby sounds like. While science shows that hearing a mother’s voice is crucial to a baby’s development, most parents know that crooning a baby to sleep just feels right.

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.