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Ever since I was a wee babe, one song always made me spontaneously burst into tears: “Wiegenlied,” better known as Brahms’s Lullaby:

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For at least the first 20 years of my life, just a few notes of Brahms’s Lullaby would draw a convulsive wet snurk from my face. My brothers would miss no opportunity. In the middle of a long, quiet car trip, Older Brother would quietly hum the first few notes so only I could hear, and I would thump him, and I’d get in trouble, which was So Unfair.

Even worse were the times Younger Brother made me cry, which disrupted the whole Order of Things.

Worst of all was not knowing why it did that to me. It was bizarre.

Barber’s Adagio for Strings also makes me cry, but that one slays me gradually for reasons I can explain musically. The Brahms was always immediate and impossible to account for.

My family advanced various guesses. My favorite: I was the reincarnation of Brahms’ wife, and I missed him. But if that were the case, why only the Lullaby? The Academic Festival Overture should also choke me up. That he was a lifelong bachelor is another point against the sad wife hypothesis.

I’m over it now, mostly. But I never stopped wondering what that was all about. I even tore apart the music theory of it, which in this case was like tearing into tissue paper: it’s all I and V and IV with nothing more adventurous than a couple of passing tones in the melody. No surprise there: Shocking modulations and searing appoggiaturas are pretty thin on the ground in lullabies.

My older brother suggested it might be the recurring minor third motive, the shape of which does rather imitate the Universal Taunting Melody (“Nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah“).

I like that idea. But I suspect being bothered by the UTM requires a level of emotional registration that was still in my future at that point. And though I’d have put my figured bass harmonizations up against any other toddler in South St. Louis in 1965, my motivic analysis was still sub-par.

And then, more than 50 years after first blood, while visiting my mom in the hospital (broken hip), a volunteer harpist was playing in the hallway to entertain the patients. After “Danny Boy” and “My Heart Will Go On,” she started in on Brahms’s Lullaby.

“Huh. Will you listen to that,” I said.

“It’s nice that they do that.”

“Well, I could do without Brahms’s Lullaby.”

“What’s wrong with Brahms’s Lullaby?”

I looked at her sideways. “You don’t remember? Brahms’s Lullaby? That’s the one that always made me cry. Ron and Randy would tease me with it. Just a few notes and I would burst into tears!”

How could she not know this?

“Ha! Well that’s terrible, because the mobile over your crib played Brahms’s Lullaby. ‘Lul-la-by, and good night,'” she sang.


“I didn’t realize I was torturing you.”


Oh my gods.

The musical mystery of my life was solved.

My parents would wind up the mobile, start the tune, and then leave.

That has to be it. Brahms’s Lullaby was my soundtrack of abandonment. As I cried, that melody tinkled above me, taunting me in my loneliness. Later, I’d hear the tinkle and the floodgates would spring open.

I might have been solved this 30 years ago if I’d stuck with the psych major, but I went into music theory, so I chased minor thirds instead of minor neuroses. And like the guy who looks for his wallet under the streetlight instead of back in the alley where he dropped it because the light is better, I spent all those years hammering a nail with a screwdriver because…uh, the light was better.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...