TikTok’s sea shanty obsession reveals how music can hijack your mind
More than ten months at home are enough to make anyone wanderlust. On TikTok, the urge to be in the wild manifests itself in an unexpected way: a viral obsession with shanties.
Those addicting tunes, written to be sung while hauling ropes or trawls on the deck of tall ships with sea spray fogging up your face, have become TikTok’s meme du jour, which is about the sufferings, passions and the close relationship who describes sailors to home and sea. Some creators even reinterpret modern songs like Smash Mouth’s “All Star” as calming sea ballads.
The obsession with TikTok may not last, but the science of why these types of songs are becoming catchy tunes, so endemic to pop culture that their popularity spans the ages, reveals a fundamental truth about our relationship with music.
Rhythmic melodies – whether they are songs that you can pull ropes to, to shout and answer the gospel, or even to create a trance – hijack our brain chemistry.
Here’s the background: TikTok is popular for the platform’s ability to serve video for every niche imaginable, from viral dance moves to forest hunt to adorable frog cakes. But perhaps one of the platform’s most magical quirks is the ability to drive an obscure video into a viral trend that is taking over all of the TikTok niches at the same time, creating an exploding fractal of riffs, duets, and reimagining.
This is exactly what happened when Nathan Evans, a 26-year-old Scottish postman, shared a video singing and trampling the beat to an old shanty called “Soon May the Wellerman Come.”
The melody goes a bit like this:
Once upon a time there was a ship that set sail. The name of the ship was Billy of Tea. The winds blew, their bow sank. Blow, my tyrant boys. Blow, soon the Wellerman may come to bring us sugar and tea and rum. A day when the tongue speaks. is done, we say goodbye and leave
The song itself is about the grizzly practice of chasing and slaughtering a whale, but for many on TikTok it seemed like some kind of nostalgic longing for community that was hard to come by in quarantine.
In the two weeks since its release, Evans’ song has inspired thousands of duets – even from Kermit the Frog.
Seems like 19th century sailors and modern teenagers passed time the same way. New York Historical Society
Dig into the details – As seaman’s shops are experiencing a renaissance, they spring from a long, perhaps universal, tradition shared by human cultures around the world – rhythmic songs sung to encourage coordinated movement or to address grievances among workers who are their masters are aware of ventilating smart.
For sailors, typically a lead singer (known as Shantyman) would carry most of the melody while the rest of the crew would join the choruses and choruses – the same structure as the call-and-answer gospel. The length or beat of the song would determine what type of work it was sung for. For example, shanties like “Haul Away” have short choruses and can be sung while workers quickly pull on heavy ropes. For longer jobs like walking on a rope to take up the slack, slightly longer choruses like “Drunken Sailor” are better suited.
Seafarers are not alone in a tendency to “whistle” while at work. American railroad workers were also notorious for singing songs to synchronize the swing of their hammers and bring down railroad spikes.
Similarly structured songs have also been sung by trade unionists to encourage camaraderie, and historians speculate that lullabies for children may have evolved from work songs as well – parenting is, after all, a form of work, especially for parents who stay home.
How it works – The appeal of these songs may not be in the lyrics, although many seaman’s songs are absurdly entertaining, but in the way they encourage neural entrainment and social bonding in our brains.
In a study published in 2016 in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers in Australia used a brain activity recording device called an EEG to observe how musical rhythms affect people’s brain activity. They found that some people could move on their own in sync with the beat, while others needed external stimulation or further movement – like swinging a hammer – to click into the rhythm.
The results suggest that a regular, pulsating beat coupled with an action could be a winning combination down the line to ensure synchronized, rhythmic movements.
Other research, conducted in 2015 and published in the journal Cognitive Science, found that rhythmic music such as sea shanties “has the potential to improve interpersonal motor coupling” – which may be why singing these songs together creates positive social bonds between people .
The Inverse Analysis – While thousands of people on TikTok probably won’t get together in person to pull rope or rocking hammers anytime soon, there is something to be said about the social camaraderie that songs like this can foster. What is strange here is the fact that such a bond can be made through an online platform and not between workers on a team or in a church choir. At a time when it is not possible to meet in person, perhaps the next best thing for our wellbeing is to sing shanties together online.