Whether we’re dancing, singing or playing instruments, music brings people together – and it’s no different when it comes to families. Music is a fundamental part of family life, soundtracking our most significant events from the lullabies we sing to babies to music played on special occasions.
Families come in all shapes and sizes, and each person’s experience of being part of one is unique. Little wonder then, that songwriters have turned to family lifetime and again as a rich source of musical inspiration. Here are a few of the best.
“We Are Family” – Sister Sledge
A funky dance floor filler that never fails to uplift, “We Are Family” is an ode to solidarity sung by real-life sisters Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy. This 1979 hit is one of the best-known songs about family there is, encouraging everyone present to “get up and sing”.
“Our House” – Madness
Hidden behind this deceptively upbeat snapshot of family life is a poignant message about how quickly it can all pass. Describing a mother sending her children off to school, frontman Suggs pauses to reflect: “She’s the one they’re going to miss / In lots of ways.”
“Here for You” – Neil Young
Written for Young’s daughter in her last year of college, “Here for You” could just as easily have been written for foster families, with its heartfelt message about loving and letting go. “Happiness I know will always find you,” sings Young, “and when it does, I hope that it will stay.”
“Father and Son” – Cat Stevens/Yusuf
Although it was written in 1970, the story behind “Father and Son” is a timeless, bittersweet conversation between an impulsive, adventurous young man and his older, wiser father who advises him to “just relax, take it easy.”
“Turn Around” – Nanci Griffith
Few songs about mothers and daughters are more beautiful than this gentle ballad. “Turn around and you’re two / Turn around and you’re four,” Griffith sings, softly lamenting the passage of time. “Turn around and you’re a young girl / going out of the door”.
“You and Me” – The Dave Matthews Band
While many songs are written about romantic love and the start of family life, less is said about the moment the youngest leaves. Instead of sadness, this song is full of possibilities for two empty-nesters: “You and me together / We could do anything, baby”.
Carole King – “Child of Mine”
The predecessor to King’s hit record “Tapestry” might not have received as much attention, but her debut album “Writer” was still laced with gems, notably this sweet and simple song about letting your child be their own person.
Imogen Heap – “Hide and Seek”
While not the most uplifting song on the list, Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” never fails to stun with its vocoder-layered vocals (sung acapella). Sampled by Jason Derulo for his 2009 hit “Whatcha Say”, this is an impassioned, deeply affecting song about a child caught in the crosshairs of divorce.
The Beach Boys – “Hold on Dear Brother”
In 1976, the Beach Boys were going through a tumultuous period. After the now cult classic “Pet Sounds” failed to land with audiences in 1966, a despondent Brian Wilson had all but retreated from the band, making it easy to read this particular track as a plea from his younger brother Carl to keep going despite it all.
2Pac – “Dear Mama”
2Pac’s “Dear Mama” is a reverent ode to the grace and grit of mothers everywhere, especially his own, who still managed to make “miracles every Thanksgiving” despite hardship. “There is no way I can pay you back,” raps Shakur, “but the plan is to show you that I understand / you are appreciated”.
Kate Bush – “This Woman’s Work”
Kate Bush’s back catalog is filled with unusual references to family life, including a song written from the perspective of a fetus (“Breathing”). Originally written for a 1988 movie about a young couple’s struggles with fertility, “This Woman’s Work” is a deeply affecting song that manages to pack all the hopes and fears of a terrified father-to-be into three minutes and 38 seconds.
Bill Withers – “Lean on Me”
Written in 1972, Withers’ hit “Lean on Me” is a homage to the strength of community in his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia, but could just as easily refer to the kinds of families that are found rather than made. Today, the song has new meaning for anyone who ever felt in need of support from their neighbors, but was too proud to reach out: “I’m right up the road / I’ll share your load,” Withers implores, “If you just call me”.
Loudon Wainwright III – “All in a Family”
Over the course of five decades, Loudon Wainwright III’s intensely personal lyrics rarely shied away from the more difficult aspects of family life. “All in a Family” is no exception, with the reflection that “Love heals heartache and familial pain”. Given the ability of the Wainwright family to transform pain into creativity, so too does music.
The Kinks – “Picture Book”
1968’s “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” is an album filled with references to nostalgia and the importance of documenting the past for future generations. Since its recording, digital photography has made family picture books less commonplace, but this cheerful and breezy musical journey through photos taken “a long time ago” could inspire you to create your own.
Rusted Root – “Send Me On My Way”
Many have tried in vain to decipher this 1994 hit, including Michael Glabicki’s intentionally garbled lyrics. The rest is open to interpretation: “Send Me On My Way” could be about the momentum of life and how all kinds of families run, crawl and dance their way towards the future.
There are many ways to enjoy music as a family. You could create a shared family playlist, or have a karaoke night where everyone gets a turn to sing their hearts out. Whatever type of family you have, sharing music supports healthy development in babies and children, relieves stress and most importantly, connects us.