The Science Behind Lullabies

What is the historical purpose of lullabies?

The most well known use of a lullaby is its ability to soothe infants to sleep.  The simple and repetitive nature of lullabies is conducive to brain relaxation.  It is for this reason that lullabies consist of primarily alternating harmonies.  This similarity in structure amongst various lullabies includes intermittent repetitions and long pauses which appeal to the infants slower capacity for processing music.  The “characteristic swinging or rocking motion” imitated by lullabies is reminiscent of the infants experience in the mother’s womb.  In fact, lullabies across various cultures are easily recognizable based on this characteristic rhythm despite language variations.  The association between music and sleep is historically common suggesting an innate predisposition to the relaxing nature of music.

How does music help people sleep?

Although there is a lack of research regarding the benefits of the use of music for sleep with children, there is a substantial amount of research evidence showing the relaxation benefits of music in music therapy.  “Studies conducted by Dr. Jeffery Perlman, chief of newborn medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Komansky Center for Children’s Health, find that gentle music therapy not only slows down the heart rate of prematurely delivered infants but also helps them feed and sleep better” (Wikipedia, 2017).  A study conducted by Harris (2014) entitled Music As a Transition For Sleep suggests that a transition into sleep can be supported by the use of sedative music defined by a tempo of 60 to 80 beats per minute.  Interestingly, the “sedative” music used in music therapy is characterized by the same smooth melody and repetitive rhythm which lullabies historically consist of (Harris, 2014; Chen et al., 2014; Knight & Rickard, 2001).

What are the benefits of the use of music for sleep?

The process followed by music therapy commonly consists of playing a sedative music for 20-45 minutes as part of a consistent bedtime routine and subsequently laying down to listen to the music without a concern about turning it off (Harris, 2014; Chan, 2011; Tan, 2004).  Harris (2014) states that “the use of sedative music for transitioning to sleep has positive effects on sleep quality”.  Furthermore, research has shown that sedative music has a relaxing effect on human stress and anxiety through the reduction of heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, adrenocorticotropic hormone levels as well as cortisol (Harris, 2014; Watkins, 1997; Knight & Rickard, 2001; Chan, 2011; Chang et al., 2012).  In addition, Harris (2014) states that there is evidence in the impact of music on “neural pathways in the brain and associated brain centers”.  This directly impacts sleep through the influence of emotions, cognition and physiological processes (Harris, 2014; Watkins, 1997).  Harris (2014) highlights the fact that the potential for music to improve quality of sleep is synonymous amongst children, adults, and those with psychological disorders, chronic sleep conditions, chronic health conditions and patients recovering from major surgery (Harris, 2014; deNeit et al., 2013).

In another study Gonzales (2013) examined the Effect of Music in Inducing Sleep among Children in Need of Special Care in a Child Shelter Institution.  Like Harris (2014), Gonzales (2013) highlights the historical role of music in healing and in the growing field of music therapy, also detailing the physiological effects of music on blood pressure and stress; however, studies on music in relation to children primarily focus on effects in cognitive function.  Field (1999) states that classical music played during the preschool years has been shown to improve math and reading performance later in life.  Furthermore, Field (1999) suggests that awareness of pitch changes was shown to correlate with reading performance and that “brain electrical activity parameters indicated that listening to music resulted in an increase of alpha rhythm power … , suggesting increased relaxation” (Field, 1999).  In Field’s (1999) study of the effect of classical music on children during nap time, she found that the children went to sleep faster following exposure to music.

Why should music be used as a tool for good sleep hygiene?

The association between music and sleep is historically common and seems to suggest an innate predisposition to the relaxing nature of music.  The historical significance of the history of lullabies coupled with the evidence of more recent findings in relation to music therapy and further studies done on children which demonstrate the benefits of listening to music either prior to or during sleep are convincing.  The fact that music has been shown to influence physiological processes on numerous occasions both in research as well as through historical significance should be compelling enough to consider a repetitive and sedative music choice as a pertinent player in a healthy sleep hygiene regimen for children as well as adults.


Field, T. (1999, February 10). Music Enhances Sleep in Preschool children . Retrieved January 12, 2017, from

Gonzales, S. G. (2013). Effect of Music in Inducing Sleep among Children in Need of Special Care in a Child Shelter Institution: Basis for Independent Nursing Intervention. Journal of Biology, Agriculture and Healthcare,3(7), 124-130. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from

Harris, M. (2014). Music as a Transition For Sleep . Retrieved January 12, 2017, from

Wikipedia. (2017). Lullaby. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from


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