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TikTok's sea shanty obsession reveals how music can hijack your brain

New-York Historical Society

"There once was a ship that put to sea

"The name of the ship was the Billy of Tea

"The winds blew up, her bow dipped down

"O blow, my bully boys, blow..."

More than ten months stuck at home is enough to give anyone wanderlust. On TikTok, the urge to be out in the wilds is manifesting in an unexpected way: a viral obsession with sea shanties.

Written to be sung while hauling ropes or trawls on the deck of tall ships with sea spray misting your face, these addictive tunes detailing sailors' woes, passions, and fraught relationship with home and sea have become TikTok's meme du jour. Some creators are even reimagining modern songs, like Smash Mouth's "All Star," as lilting sea ballads.

The obsession may not last on TikTok, but the science behind why these kinds of songs become ear worms so endemic to pop culture their popularity transcends the centuries reveals a fundamental truth about our relationship with music.

Rhythmic tunes — whether they be songs to haul ropes to, call-and-answer gospel, or even trance-inducing dub — hijack our brain chemistry.

Here's the background — TikTok is beloved for the platform's ability to serve up videos to cater to every niche imaginable, from viral dance moves to forest foraging, and adorable frog cakes. But perhaps one of the platform's most magical quirks is its ability to propel one obscure video into a viral trend which takes over all TikTok niches at once, creating an exploding fractal of riffs, duets, and reimagining.

That's exactly what happened when Nathan Evans, a 26-year-old Scottish postman, shared a video of him singing and stomping the beat to an old sea shanty called "Soon May the Wellerman Come.”

The tune goes a little like this:

There once was a ship that put to sea
The name of the ship was the Billy of Tea
The winds blew up, her bow dipped down
O blow, my bully boys, blow

Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum
One day, when the tonguin' is done
We'll take our leave and go

The song itself is about the grizzly practice of hunting and butchering a whale, but for many on TikTok it seemed to represent a kind of nostalgic yearning for community that has been hard to come by in quarantine.

In the two weeks since posting his rendition, Evans' song has inspired thousands of duets — even by Kermit the Frog.

Seems that 19th-century sailors and modern teenagers pass time in the same way.New-York Historical Society

Digging into the details — While sea shanties enjoy a renaissance, they originate from a long, perhaps universal tradition shared by human cultures across the globe — rhythmic songs sung to inspire coordinated movement, or to slyly air grievances among workers wary of their masters.

For sailors, typically a lead singer (known as a shantyman) would carry the bulk of the tune, while the rest of the crew would join in for the refrains and choruses — the same structure as call-and-answer gospel. The length, or beat, of the song would determine what kind of work it was sung for. For example, shanties like "Haul Away," have short refrains and may be sung while workers do quick pulls on heavy rope. For longer jobs, like walking up to a rope to take in slack, slightly longer refrains like those in "Drunken Sailor" are better suited.

Sailors are not alone in the tendency to 'whistle' while they worked. American railroad workers were also notorious for singing songs to help them synchronize the swinging of their hammers to drive down railroad spikes.

Similarly structured songs were also sung by unionizers to promote camaraderie, and historians speculate children's lullabies may have evolved from work songs as well — parenting, after all, is a form of work, especially for stay-at-home parents.

How it works — These songs' appeal may lie not in the lyrics, although many sea shanties are absurdly entertaining, but in the way they promote neural entrainment and social bonding in our brains.

In a 2016 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers in Australia used brain-activity recording device called an EEG to observe how musical rhythms affected people's brain activity. They found some people were able to move in-sync to the beat all by themselves, while others required external stimulation, or further movement — not unlike swinging a hammer — to click into the rhythm.

The findings suggest a regular, pulsing beat coupled to an action could be a winning combo across the board for guaranteeing synchronized, rhythmic movements.

Other research done in 2015 and published in the journal Cognitive Science found rhythmic music, like sea shanties, "has the potential to enhance interpersonal motor coupling" — which could be the reason why singing these songs together creates positive social bonding between humans.

The Inverse Analysis — While thousands of individuals across TikTok aren't likely to come together in person anytime soon to haul rope or swing hammers, there is something to be said about the social camaraderie such songs can promote. What's curious here is the fact such bonding can take place via an online platform, rather than among workers together in a team, or in a church choir. At a time when gathering together in person isn't an option, perhaps singing sea shanties together online is the next best thing for our well-being.

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