Why You’re Obsessed With Sea Shanties
And why you can’t get the stupid songs out of your head
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
I know the internet has moved on from sea shanties to Bernie’s mittens and whatever meme will take hold this week, but I’m still obsessed with “The Wellerman,” so indulge me this exploration into why our brains find the song so damn catchy. (If you haven’t heard the reason people are calling 2021 “the year of the sea shanty,” go check out this video that mashes up the best TikTok renditions of a 19th-century New Zealand whaling tune. You can thank me later.)
Your brain loves music
The human brain is specially wired to appreciate and enjoy music. Our early human ancestors carved flutes out of bone 40,000 years ago; infants as young as two months old can recognize and remember short songs; and every culture on Earth has a musical tradition. Music appears to be as fundamental to humans as talking.
Unlike speech, there aren’t one or two brain regions dedicated to hearing and appreciating a beat or a melody. Instead, a whole network gets activated when you listen to a song. Unsurprisingly, the auditory cortex (where sound is processed) lights up, but so do the brain’s reward, emotion, and memory centers — the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and hippocampus, respectively. Regions involved in movement also turn on when you hear a beat, including the cerebellum, which processes rhythm and timing, and the premotor cortex, which prepares the body to move.
Rhythm is an especially important part of the brain’s response to music. Neurons in the brain will actually start firing at the same time as a beat, a phenomenon known as entrainment. Some people even try to hack their brains with sound, listening to pulsing tones at specific frequencies to try to get their brains to match and optimize for attention or relaxation. The evidence is mixed about how well this tactic works.
In a conversation I had several years ago (i.e., before the year of the shanty)…