Sea Shanty vs. Sea Song

What's the Difference?

Sea shanties and sea songs are both types of traditional maritime music that were commonly sung by sailors on ships. However, there are some key differences between the two. Sea shanties were work songs that were sung by sailors to coordinate their movements while performing tasks such as hoisting sails or hauling ropes. They often have a call-and-response structure and a steady rhythm to keep the crew in sync. Sea songs, on the other hand, are more lyrical and storytelling in nature, often recounting tales of life at sea, adventures, or lost loves. While both types of music have a strong connection to the sea and maritime culture, sea shanties are more functional and practical, while sea songs are more expressive and emotional.


AttributeSea ShantySea Song
OriginWork songs sung on ships by sailors during work tasksSongs about the sea or sailors, not necessarily sung during work
StructureUsually call-and-response formatVaries, can be in any song structure
FunctionTo coordinate the rhythm of work tasksTo tell stories or evoke emotions related to the sea
TraditionalOften traditional and passed down through generationsCan be traditional or contemporary

Further Detail


Sea shanties and sea songs are both types of music that have been associated with sailors and the sea for centuries. While they may seem similar at first glance, there are actually several key differences between the two genres. In this article, we will explore the attributes of sea shanties and sea songs, highlighting their unique characteristics and discussing how they have evolved over time.

Origin and History

Sea shanties have their roots in the work songs of sailors from the 19th century. These songs were used to coordinate the movements of sailors as they performed tasks such as hoisting sails or hauling ropes. Sea shanties were typically call-and-response songs, with a lead singer (known as the shantyman) singing a verse and the rest of the crew joining in on the chorus. Sea songs, on the other hand, are more narrative in nature and often tell stories of life at sea. They have been around for centuries and were popularized by folk singers and musicians.

Structure and Lyrics

Sea shanties are known for their repetitive nature, with a simple verse-chorus structure that made them easy for sailors to sing along to while working. The lyrics of sea shanties often revolve around themes of hard work, longing for home, and the camaraderie of sailors. Sea songs, on the other hand, are more varied in structure and content. They can be ballads, love songs, or even humorous tales of life at sea. The lyrics of sea songs are often more poetic and descriptive, painting vivid pictures of life on the ocean.

Music and Instruments

Sea shanties are typically accompanied by simple instrumentation, such as a drum or a concertina. The focus is on the vocals, with the rhythm of the music driving the work being done by the sailors. Sea songs, on the other hand, can be more elaborate in terms of musical arrangement. They may feature a wider range of instruments, such as guitars, fiddles, and accordions. The music of sea songs often sets the mood for the story being told, adding depth and emotion to the lyrics.

Themes and Subject Matter

Sea shanties often focus on the daily tasks and routines of sailors, with lyrics that reflect the physical labor and hardships of life at sea. The themes of sea shanties can include sailing, fishing, and the dangers of the ocean. Sea songs, on the other hand, cover a broader range of topics. They can be romantic, adventurous, or even political in nature. Sea songs often explore the emotional and psychological aspects of life at sea, delving into themes of love, loss, and longing.

Popularity and Revival

Sea shanties experienced a revival in popularity in recent years, thanks in part to social media and viral trends. Platforms like TikTok have helped to introduce a new generation to the music of sea shanties, leading to a resurgence of interest in this traditional genre. Sea songs, on the other hand, have maintained a steady following among folk music enthusiasts and maritime historians. While they may not have the same mainstream appeal as sea shanties, sea songs continue to be performed and celebrated by musicians around the world.


In conclusion, sea shanties and sea songs are both important genres of music that have played a significant role in maritime culture. While sea shanties are known for their work songs and repetitive structure, sea songs offer a more diverse range of themes and musical arrangements. Both genres have their own unique attributes and appeal to different audiences. Whether you prefer the rhythmic chants of sea shanties or the storytelling of sea songs, there is no denying the enduring popularity and influence of these traditional maritime tunes.

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