The science of why sea shanties are so catchy © Getty Images

Prof Catherine Loveday on the psychology of sea shanties

Read the full transcript of our Science Focus Podcast interview with Prof Catherine Loveday – listen to the full episode at the bottom of the page.

Sara Rigby: Hello and welcome to the Science Focus Podcast. I’m Sara Rigby, online assistant at BBC Science Focus magazine. 2021 has got off to a bit of a strange start with a surprising trend sweeping the internet: sea shanties. This ancient genre of music has exploded in popularity in recent weeks, thanks to people on social media singing them, sharing them and adding their own twists. In fact, they’ve become so popular that Bristol-based shanty band The Longest Johns have entered the Top 40 in the UK singles chart. Naturally, we here at BBC Science Focus wanted to know what it was about sea shanties that makes them so catchy. So today I’m talking to Professor Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster. She’s a neuropsychologist who specialises in music. So thank you for coming on the podcast today. And so just to start, could you just give us a brief overview of what sea shanties are and why people sang them?

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Prof Catherine Loveday: Sea shanties were working songs, really. They’re very, very repetitive and fairly upbeat, uplifting tunes and melodies that people can very quickly join and sing together. And they tend to be very rhythmic so that people can work while they’re doing so. The classic one of, hey, ho and up she rises is getting the sails up. So it’s that the melody and the rhythm are designed to kind of match the activities that are going on and also to be quite repeated.

SR: OK, so people sang them alongside their work, but what was the benefit of a song in that situation as opposed to just counting?

CL: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. And I think it’s because music has a real capacity to connect us. So it taps into our own natural communication system. It makes us feel bonded and connected. But it also kind of lifts us up in the same way that chanting at a football match or singing in a religious setting or even singing lullabies to children, music enables us to kind of often reach a different emotional state. And it’s also been shown that it can really, really help people with learning. So in the same way that we can learn to count. But actually children learn to count better if those numbers are set to music. We just seem to be primed to respond and connect better when there is melody and timbre and rhythm and all these elements of music added to something.

SR: So would you say that the songs helped people bond and therefore work better as a team?

CL: Yeah, absolutely. And this is something that’s been known historically. If you go back in history, it’s been shown in fact, some people have argued that not just singing, but marching together and sort of collective rhythmic activities might even be a small part of our evolutionary success. And that’s because they promote togetherness. And the sort of collective participation in something has been shown to promote our shared social identity. And that gives us a sense of togetherness. And it feels like we’re all working towards the same goals and we’re working in the same direction. And actually human beings only exist when they work together. They only survive if they work together. We have survived as a human species because of working in groups and working in communities and working in societies and music has been shown to promote that sort of collective action and to make us feel stronger.

SR: And so I have played in orchestras when I was younger, and one thing I would always notice is if the audience is clapping along, they will always start to speed up and they’ll get faster and faster and it’s really annoying. So how do we, in our brains, keep rhythm?

CL: That’s a good question. We know that the area of the brain that’s particularly relevant is the cerebellum, which is the wobbly bit of the brain at the back. We also have quite a lot of different areas of the brain that are involved in timing more generally, because actually not just timing of music, but timing with everything is utterly crucial. If we can’t coordinate our activities, we can’t even eat. So we have to time our mouth to open when we lift our spoon up towards our mouth. And so timing is something that the brain is actually very, very good at. And it does it on many, many different levels. Musically, we know that it particularly taps into the cerebellum. And we know that that part of the brain is also really important in terms of motivation and drive. So emotion and motivate all come from the same words. So emotion and motivate is about actually movement. And so the sense of wanting to get up and move and respond to music is really very, very fundamental and driven by this area of the brain that taps into music and emotion and motivation and all of those things together. We also know that it’s really, really useful for sport for the same reason. So people who, for example, use music in sport often are able to perform for longer. They feel like they’ve had less effort. And so they can kind of push themselves harder.

SR: Right. So that’s really interesting. So that sounds like that’s sort of why music and dance are linked to each other. So when you hear something that’s really catchy, you just you can’t help but start to dance to it.

CL: Yeah, it’s really interesting. If you do this in a lecture theatre, there are certain types of music – it’s really interesting – if you use one type of music, everyone will start sort of bobbing their head backwards and forwards and if you use a different type of music, everyone starts to kind of sway. It’s so absolutely inherent that people will respond to particular rhythms, in particular types of music and this very, very collective way. And there’s also some very interesting research that shows – and I’ve always been a bit sceptical of this research, if I’m absolutely honest, but it keeps coming out and I’m beginning to be convinced by it – that shows that our brains actually are showing synchronised activity not only when people play together, but even when they are in an audience together watching something. So when you look at the activity of people who are sharing the same musical experience, you see this very synchronised brain activity. So there is something very fundamental going on where people are sort of feeling connected.

SR: What features of the music is it that determines whether people bob their heads or sway?

CL: It’s basically to do with the rhythm. So if you have if you have a sort of – it’s quite difficult to describe it. If you have something that is that kind of goes doo do doo do doo do doo [lilting rhythm], that would make people sway. I could see you doing it there.

And if you have something that’s more like dun dun dun dun [fast, heavy beat], it’ll get people bobbing their heads. So it’s just this very natural sense to react and move along with the rhythm that we hear.

So a swaying rhythm just makes us sway. It’s just it’s so brilliant to watch.

SR: OK, so what features of sea shanties are there that make them really good as work songs?

CL: I think it’s the fact that they tend to have these lifting, lilting melodies that go up and they tend to match the actual physical action you’re doing. So you have kind of oooh [rising] and oooh [falling], you have these kind of things that kind of mimic what you’re actually doing. And we know from other research that people use music almost as a metaphor for something. So you sometimes in music have a sense of going home when something resolves. But you also have a sense of tension sometimes when something feels like it hasn’t got home. And what you have with sea shanties is something that that is kind of almost moving you backwards and forwards in a very rhythmic sense. So it’s taking you away and it’s bringing you back and it’s taking you away and it’s bringing you back. And it does that kind of with this very, very consistent rhythm, but also with sort of melodic lines that tend to go up and down and match the activity that you’re doing. And also in terms of a sea shanty, it kind of matches the environment that you’re in, right?

SR: Yeah. And so these shanties, they’ve exploded in popularity this month, really. And it’s been very much an online phenomenon, obviously, because we’re all at home. Do you think the reason they’ve suddenly become popular, do you think that’s related to the fact that we’re all at home and we’re feeling a need to connect to each other?

CL: Yeah, I thought about this a lot when the Clapping for Carers started. And this was something that you saw actually all over the world, people started to use music and rhythm to connect to each other. And in the UK we have this clapping, this thing that was happening every week. And I think there was a sense when people were doing that that there was just something that was connecting people who the rest of the time were just sort of stuck in their houses. And suddenly everyone was coming together and doing something together. And I think this is what’s happening with the sea shanties. I think people like to engage in collective musical activities and it’s been completely impossible. But with a sea shanty, they’re very, very easy to pick up. That maybe wasn’t something I mentioned earlier, but because they are very repetitive, they’re very easy to pick up. And so very quickly, it becomes something that you can sing along with. And if you’re singing along with it, then you’re immediately engaged and you’re part of it. And that in itself connects you to everyone else that’s doing it. But it’s a very simple thing. If you can join in with something, then you feel part of it. And a really good analogy is something like laughter. So if we hear people laughing and we’re not part of what’s going on, it can make us feel incredibly excluded. But if you’re part of the joke and you’re part of the laughter, then actually it has the exact opposite effect. And you suddenly feel incredibly connected to the people that you’re laughing with. And I think because sea shanties are also really, really basic.

I mean, in a sense, it’s surprising because they’re not kind of modern, new music, but actually they go right across the generations. You don’t have it’s kind of free of the kind of in group out group thing that so many genres have. It doesn’t really define a group. It just defines our collective history in a sense. And so it’s something that will reach across all the different, you know, groups and make us feel like we’re all one big group instead of you like punk, you like rock, you like RnB, and you like country. Suddenly it’s something that everyone can sort of relate to.

 

SR: I realise this question I’m going to ask is something that probably we don’t know the answer to just yet. So as you were saying earlier, people get really sort of physical reactions to all making music together. You know, their brain activity lines up. But do you think people would have the same effect if it’s just virtual, if you’re just listening to a song and singing it on your own in a room? Would that have the same effect as being in a room with a hundred other people and all singing together?

CL: I mean, as you said, I don’t think we absolutely know the answer to this. I’ve been very interested in the difference, for example, in listening to recorded music versus engaging with something live.

And I think if you engage with something live, then there’s more than just listening to something on an audio device of some kind, because you see facial expressions and you see people’s movements. I think it’s quite hard to completely recreate the togetherness that you have of actually being in the same place together, and I think that that is partly difficult because it’s so instantaneous.

We are feeding off of people’s movements as well as their facial expressions and all of those things. And although you’ll pick that up a little bit on video, it’s not the same thing. And also, you don’t get the full breadth of sound. So if you’re if you’re particularly using some of the online systems, you’re getting quite a broken up version. And we know that you can’t really get people absolutely synced together in those ways.

So it’s I don’t think it does give you quite the same thing. But I think if you’re singing along with something, even actually singing along with something in the car on the car stereo, you can sort of actually feel connected to the person that’s singing and to the music. So I think the answer to it is that, yes, it does form a form of connection and I think it forms quite a unique form of connection, but I don’t think it can quite replace being together.

SR: Yeah, I’ve been listening to sea shanties a lot over the last few weeks, I don’t know about you, but…

CL: No, it’s a whole phenomenon. I didn’t really even know about it until you mentioned it. I’m obviously in a whole different plane. But they are sort of things that have occasionally sort of featured in my life. So, yeah, I’m quite pleased that they’re making a bit of a comeback.

SR: Yeah. I’ve been really enjoying them actually. And the one that seems to sort of have started it all is called the Wellerman and that’s been going around and around in my head for about a week now. So what is it about a song that can make it a real earworm?

CL: Yeah, this is something that loads of people have tried to, sort of, find specific things about. And it’s actually really hard to pin down. It’s really hard to pin down something because what sticks in one person’s head doesn’t necessarily stick in another person’s head. But the easier it is for us to, sort of, pick up. Some people have argued that the easier it is for us to even be able to sing in our minds. So if we can if we can articulate it in our heads, so if we can kind of almost hum it internally or mouth the words, then we may be more likely to remember it better. And we know that, for example, we remember tunes that are sung better than tunes that are played. And it’s partly because you can, in your minds, sing it back. So you are kind of almost rehearsing and practising it. I think anything that has an easy melody that people can pick up and we don’t really know what these hooks are, but there are certain hooks that sort of really grab people. And so anything where you’ve got a repeated theme that goes round and round and round and it’s very easy to sing back and something with a kind of a melodic line that’s not difficult to do.

So something that doesn’t jump about too much but follows a nice line. Those seem to be the things that stick in our mind most. And that’s simply, I think, because they’re repeated, it’s like a mantra almost. So anything that is repeated like a mantra just kind of gets stuck.

SR: Right. It’s interesting that you said that we remember melodies better if they’re sung rather than played, because I always find that I find it much easier to remember the melody of a song than the words. I think that’s probably quite common. You hear people going [humming] if they don’t quote remember the words. So how does that match up?

CL: Oh, well, actually that’s interesting because the research shows that even if it’s ‘la’, it’s still works. It’s not actually the words that seem to do it. It’s just the ability to… So if you hear a violin, you can’t recreate that sound. I mean, this is just one theory. There have been different theories about why it might be. Another theory is that it’s simply the human voice and that the human voice compels us more. We are more intuitive and we’ve evolved to focus on the human voice. So that’s one theory. And the other theory that has been this idea that if you can articulate it and if you hear something that you can mimic, even if it’s just la la la, then you are more likely to remember it than if it’s a violin or a flute that that we feel one step removed from.

SR: Oh, I see. Thank you. OK, so just one last question then. Do you have a favourite sea shanty that you can recommend to our listeners?

CL: Well, as I said, I haven’t really been listening to them that often, but I’m just going to kind of go back to my childhood, as I always do. And it’s the Drunken Sailor. The reason that always sort of sticks in my mind is because I remember it so well from being a child and I remember it kind of being sung at school. But then I played in a band when I was… While I was doing my Ph.D. I played in bands every weekend, and one of the players would always break into that song halfway through something and the whole pub would join in it. So it sort of became one of our features is that we’d be playing all this kind of rock’n’roll, and then suddenly we’d break out into What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor and everyone in the pub would start singing. I think that’s why, you know, your questions have appealed to me so much, because I just, you know, there were all these people sitting around and I didn’t in a million years think that that’s what they’d want to be listening to. But it absolutely worked every time. Guaranteed.

SR: All right. Great. Thank you very much. That was neuropsychologist Professor Catherine Loveday talking about the power of sea shanties. Thank you for listening to this episode of the Science Focus Podcast. The January issue of BBC Science Focus magazine is out now. Also in this issue, we explore the greatest mysteries of the Universe. Dr Michael Mosley shares his top tips for keeping your blood pressure on track. As always, our panel of experts answer your questions. Of course, there’s much more inside and on sciencefocus.com.


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