Sea shanties are having a moment right now. Thanks to TikTok’s duet feature, a rendition of “Soon May the Wellerman Come” took the internet by storm. It’s a catchy tune, which helped it go viral, but that catchy rhythm also had a purpose. Sea shanties were sung to help get people moving, and that same principle is used in dance therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease.
Hearing music can make people – and even some animals – move to the rhythm without thinking about it. According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, this ability has an evolutionary advantage, because it made it possible to coordinate synchronized movements. A lot of that coordinated movement that could have been useful in the past, like lifting heavy stones together, is now done with machines, but the same neural pathways still cause people to automatically start dancing when they hear a tune.
And it’s not just dancing. Anyone who has ever gone for a run or walk while listening to music might have noticed that they tend to synchronize their pace to the beat of the song. This is the basis of dance therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease. Researchers have found that listening to music could help people with Parkinson’s keep better balance while walking, and reduce the number of times they fell. Simply listening to music and moving to the beat was able to get them to walk with a more regular gait, and even continue to do so for a while after they stopped listening.
The tendency to move rhythmically when listening to music also ties into the history of sea shanties. These were songs that sailors would sing at sea while they were doing repetitive tasks or tasks that had to be synchronized (raising a sail together, for example). The song “The Wellerman” that recently went viral online is thought to have originated in the New Zealand whaling community in the 19th century. In the New York Times, maritime curator Michael P. Dyer notes that the song could have been sung while workers cut up whale meat. Singing rhythmic songs like this may have kept them motivated and working in sync to get it done quicker.
So whether it’s a sea shanty or dance therapy, the principle behind it is the same: hearing rhythms makes you move. For people with Parkinson’s it helps them walk without falling, and for 19th century sailors and whalers it could help them sail a ship or cut a whale.
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That raises an interesting question: Does this mean you can use sea shanties in Parkinson’s dance therapy? Technically, yes, but as music psychologist Dawn Rose said when I interviewed her for a previous article a few years ago, it seems to be important that people have an emotional connection to the song that’s being played. That’s why they tend to use rhythmical music people are familiar with, such as popular music from their youth. But who knows, maybe now that sea shanties have gone viral, The Wellerman will be on future dance therapy playlists.