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I need to write a short folk lullaby as part of my story, but am having trouble getting the feel of it in my lyrics.

What are the general conventions of writing a lullaby? Any general principles specific to lullabies as opposed to other types of lyrics?

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Probably not that complicated (in theory) when you write it in a story. The problematic part is the music, rhythm, which lulls the baby. These must not be stirring, but the words are not understood by the youngest babies. Humming is enough for them. That's easy to describe.

Older kids understand the lyric though. But finding something gentle should be easy when orienting at existing lullabies. They tell the kids that they are protected during the night (e.g. by angels), taking away the fear of the dark. Add the hope, that there will be a next morning when they awake and you have the "main plot" of a lullaby (ok, the lyric should rhyme ;).

So the basics are:

  • No fear of the dark, you are protected.
  • Therefore sleep well and have sweet dreams.
  • Tomorrow you will awake, enjoying a new beautiful morning.

Short, rhyming sentences. Parents must be able to recall them. Four lines should be sufficient, they can be repeated endlessly (which you do not show anyway in your book).

For examples orientate on existing lullabies:
http://lullabies.adoption.com/
http://www.babycentre.co.uk/baby/sleep/lullaby/

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Those are useful principles to start working off, and the examples definitely help. Thanks! –  Lexi Nov 11 '11 at 12:36
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I have the same problem! I knew a lullaby was (duh) lulling, and so I wrote down a list of all the words I could think of that had a sleepy connotation. Then I just kind of arranged them in a nonsensical but very rhythmic way. Maybe the process I used would work for you too.

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After it's written, and you're polishing, think about vowel sounds. There should be very few words or lines which end on hard consonants (K, T) because you want the sounds and the lines to flow in a stream.

Say your lines aloud in a singsong (never mind a melody) to make sure they can be sung, and you haven't picked a word which stops on a voiceless syllable.

Example to make that coherent:

Aaaaare you sleeeeepingggggg,
Broooother Johnnnnn?
Morning bells are rinnnngingggg,
Dingggg dangggg donggg.

Note that the emphases are on vowels and the voiced N and NG sounds.

In "Rockabye baby," the second line does end in "rock," with a hard K sound, but when it's sung, you always emphasize the O of "roooooooock." (not to mention I think it's a horrible thing to sing to a child anyway, but YMMV.)

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I never did like that song! Another bad choice for kids is a common bedtime prayer. "If I should die before I wake . . ." Yeah, that thought NEVER lingered in my head as I tried to go to sleep! :) –  Steven Drennon Nov 9 '11 at 14:39
    
@Steven: I hate that one too! The point is to make kids relaxed enough to fall asleep, not too terrified to close their eyes. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 9 '11 at 14:45
    
I hadn't thought of the specific word sounds - definitely something to keep in mind. And yes, I find "Rockabye baby" really creepy as well. I have no idea who on earth thought it would make a good song to sing to kids. –  Lexi Nov 11 '11 at 12:43
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I have three children, and just before each child's birth I wrote a lullaby that was just for that child. Each one has a different tune and a different lyrical pattern, but the one thing they have in common is that they can be sung softly in a low voice. The whole point of a lullaby is to lull the child to sleep.

In most cases, the words to a lullaby aren't usually the key emphasis. Since they are usually sung to an infant, the words don't have much significance for the intended audience. However, I sense that you want your lyrics to contribute to the story in some way, so that is obviously going to be more important.

If you are not actually writing a tune to go along with the lullaby, then just focus on the words and think about writing a poem instead of a song. Concentrate on the meter and the rhyme and you may find it a lot easier. If you would like to think of it more as a song, then start out just humming something that is soft and slow and has a repeating pattern. Before long I suspect you'll find something that works as a tune. Try recording that tune and then you can play it back in pieces while trying to fit the words to the tune.

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That's so sweet! Yeah, it's definitely more of the lyrics in this case, though I would want them to fit with the typical kind of tunes you use for lullabies. The idea of thinking of it as a poem definitely helps. –  Lexi Nov 11 '11 at 12:30
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