The formal characteristics of lullabies help put infants to sleep and introduce them into their cultural and affective context

Elisa Carareto

Psychologist Silvia De Ambrosis Pinheiro Machado’s interest in the universe of cradlesongs goes back to the 1980s during her work providing childhood psychoprophylaxis for the families of newborns and counseling for parents and educators. “My interaction with families from different regions in Brazil during the implementation of a home visitation program to provide postnatal psychological care, and my observation of children’s development at an important stage in their life, which shapes their view of the world, brought me into contact with a rich Brazilian tradition,” says Machado. Her doctoral research some three decades later, in the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Humanities at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), laid the groundwork for her book Canção de ninar brasileira: Aproximações (Brazilian lullabies: Approximations), published last year by Edusp. The choice of language and literature as a field of study was due to her interest in exploring lullabies “as one of the first objects of art and culture to which humans are exposed,” says Machado.

Recurrent musical and narrative themes and the presence of both protective and fear-inspiring characters were a source of curiosity for Machado, who did phonographic research to compile the folk lullabies sung by parents, grandparents, and educators in different cities of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. As she explored the Brazilian literature about cradlesongs, her attention was drawn to the formal aspects of compositions, such as meter, patterns in verses, and the sonority of words. Her research was then divided into two strands. In addition to exploring the format of the acalanto (a Brazilian form of lullaby), Machado investigated the extent to which these songs are present in family or infant-care settings.

Cradlesongs have previously been studied within different areas of knowledge. In Brazil, musicologist Renato Almeida (1895–1981), for example, explored their ethnographic aspects, while Florestan Fernandes (1920–1995) looked at sociological aspects. From these and other studies, Machado compiled a repertoire of Brazilian lullabies, information about their ethnic and social origins, and insights into their sonority and the role they play in human interactions surrounding infants. “Lullabies have an effect not only on young children, helping to lull them to sleep, but also on grownups, who find in these songs an opportunity to express their feelings and remote memories,” says the author, referring to the effects of repetitive sounds both on the utterer and on the listener.

This led the researcher to wonder, for example, about the possible reasons for the repetitive use of the vowel “u” ​​in Brazilian lullabies, such as in words like sapo cururu (or jururu), murucututu, tutu marambá, angu, murundu, and sussussu. The sonic traits in these words, all of indigenous origin, have been previously explored by Alfredo Bosi, a literary critic and emeritus professor at USP, by Kaka Werá Jecupé, a writer and scholar of Tupi history and culture, and by Mário de Andrade (1893–1945). The recurrence of the vowel “u”, explains Machado, is an ancestral allusion to sounds “reminiscent of the nocturnal environment of the forest.” “Singing words constructed with a ‘u’ sound activates emotional functions and conveys to future generations certain elements of the sacred in indigenous cultures,” she says. It is such a prevalent characteristic in Brazilian lullabies that it is even present in contemporary lullabies such as “Tudo, tudo, tudo,” a song Caetano Veloso composed for his newborn son.

In addition to elements of indigenous origin, Portuguese folk characters like Cuca and bogeymen of all sorts are also present in Brazilian cradlesongs. Song lyrics often allude to threatening and terror-inspiring figures, such as in the popular lullabies Boi da cara preta and Nana nenê. These are thought to have a disciplinary function in inducing sleep, while references to the protective presence of the mother and of saints and angels provide the necessary assurance of safety to sleep. The transition from restlessness to calm is directly related to the actions of the singing adult—swaddling, cuddling, or offering her lap—and her voice and the warmth of her body. “Infants do not necessarily understand the words, but are soothed by the comfort of the warm, familiar voice. They are also being introduced to the culture into which they were born and in which they are being raised,” explains Machado.

For the researcher, lullabies—which are characterized by monotones and repetition—also express the melancholy that mothers experience in the puerperal period and are a way to overcome it. Maria Teresa (Teca) Alencar de Brito, a professor in the Music Department at the School of Communication and Arts of the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP), concurs: “Through their particular musical traits, lullabies all around the world provide insight into how adults care for children in infancy. Lullabies reveal a respect for infants and their pace of development, and are designed to put them to sleep by means of their soft, melodic tones. And their effects are ingrained for life.”

Unlike the sense of sight, auditory function in babies is already very well developed in the last months of gestation. “Musical stimuli experienced in the third trimester of pregnancy will elicit a response many years later, demonstrating the acuity of perceptiveness and memory at this stage,” says music therapist Ambra Palazzi from the Early Childhood and Family Center (NUDIF) of Institute of Psychology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). In addition, as research based on sound recordings has shown, the intrauterine environment has a high level of noise, with a profusion of deep tones deriving from the mother’s body functions, and with sounds from the outside also heard relatively clearly. The mother’s voice is most conspicuous, and is transmitted by both sound and vibration. “At birth, an infant already has a rich repertoire of sonorities,” says Brito. “But among all the auditory stimuli to which an infant is exposed, the mother’s voice is by far the most engaging,” says Ambra, noting that singing elicits a greater response than speech because it can capture and transmit more emotion, and strengthen bonds with the mother. “It is not by chance that lullabies the world over all have the same structure, and often the same pentatonic scale.”

MACHADO, S. De A. P. Canção de ninar brasileira: Aproximações. São Paulo: Edusp, 2017.