I understand that sea shanties were a type of work song, and often used to help sailors operate in sync with each other. They've survived as an art form, but so far as I know they don't have any practical use anymore. One would think that after technology had advanced far enough to make space travel a possibility, this would not change. Nevertheless, I'd like to include space shanties in my story, and I need a good excuse to do so. Why might sea shanties, or rather, space shanties, be used aboard space times?
Space is a very dangerous place. Even small mistakes can have deadly consequences. Which is why most routine tasks in space - performing an engine burn, black-starting a fusion reactor, using an airlock or even just going to the toilet - will come with long, mandatory checklists to follow. Sure, you could look up such checklists on your PDA. But it would be far more convenient to memorize them. And there might also be the need to teach checklists to others. Newcomers on your vessel. Or perhaps your assistant engineer forgot to properly tether themselves on a spacewalk, and now you need to explain to a botanist how to manually realign a solar array. Perhaps there are even children growing up in space who need to be taught how to not kill themselves and everyone else on the vessel when they jettison the trash.
So how do you memorize a long checklist and make it easily teachable?
How about turning it into a catchy and memorable song you can sing to yourself while performing a task? Or sing it together with others when the task needs to be performed by multiple people in coordination?
Wherever you have humans performing together, morale will be a huge factor in how well they perform.
Space shanties will be up for ensuring that the crew will feel like one, build a team spirit and make them feel like a single body.
I was once talking with an acquaintance who at the time was sergeant in a training camp for the army: he was telling me that singing the same song while undergoing the same training was a huge help in building the body spirit and turn a bunch of individuals into a group willing to fight for each other.
Music is an expression of communal identity
Performing (or just listening to) music together instills a feeling of community and cultural belonging in people. This is true for millennia of human history. Every culture in history had its own distinct style of folk music. When cultures amalgamated in the middle ages, then you often saw subcultures emerge which identified with their own songs. Seafarers had shanties, but other subcultures also had their own songs. European monks are still known for their distinct style of singing. Soldiers had songs. Peddlers had songs. City dwellers had songs they sung in taverns. Nobles had music performed at banquets.
After the middle ages, music became political. Every revolution was accompanied by a canon of music to capture the emotional sentiment of the revolutionaries. Every country got its national anthem to instill a feeling of national identity.
Then in the 20th and 21st century, music became an expression of lifestyle. Rock, country, punk, blues, schlager, pop, techno, rap, jazz... the music someone listens to says what community they identify with and what lifestyle they pursue.
When spacefarers in your world are going to form a distinct subculture, they are going to have spacefarer songs they are going to perform together as a sign of their communal identity.
Timing and rhythm
Songs can be useful for (imprecisely) measuring lengths of time, either through the length of the entire song, or through its tempo. Planetside, there are a number of song-based timing techniques, such as washing your hands long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice, or performing CPR to the beat of "Stayin' Alive".
It's reasonable to think that a space shanty could be used as an easy way to remember the timing of common tasks. Perhaps you need to manually prime some rocket fuel pump not-too-fast but not-too-slow, so doing it to the beat of a sea shanty is just right. Maybe you need to wait for a system to cool off after shutting it down before performing maintenance, so singing a couple of verses will help keep you from burning yourself. Humming a song in your head can also be a rough measure of time if a clock is unavailable - if you finish humming the entire shanty, you had better finish your spacewalk no matter what your oxygen gauge reads. I'm envisioning these techniques as being particularly useful in a spacepunk-esque setting with rust-bucket spaceships, where computerized control of timing is either unavailable or unreliable.
Sea shanties are typically sung in groups, but it could still be useful to have a common song that all crew members sing even individually, to provide consistency as different people perform different tasks. Even if the song is usually sung individually, it can still provide consistency and cohesion across the group. Of course, any song with the right tempo and length could be used for these purposes, but a shanty is a nice thematic fit.
The crewmember must share information, unbeknown to the starship AI
A lot of complex tasks are carried out by the space ship's AI. Unluckily, we all know that sometimes the space ship's AI can be a bit touchy. Maybe the AI was programmed to lie to the crew, maybe this brought the AI to make a trivial mistake which is noticed by somebody in the crew... Well, you know, things could easily go south from here, and there have been a lot of registered cases where the AI went mad and killed all the crew members.
Luckily, while proficient in all technical and logical issues of a space ship, AIs don't have a lot of musical knowledge, nor much ability in deciphering the music's meaning to human beings; as crew members continue to sing, the AI doesn't see any meaning other than a bizarre hobby of those organ bags, and ignores it.
But for the crew members, every song has a meaning: while almost all songs have no other purpose than telling that everything is good, some songs (maybe changing the key of the music, from a major scale to a minor one) are used to warn the rest of the crew that something is not OK with the AI. Since peopleoften change or add lines to these songs, some well-(dis)placed words or rhymes could also explain other crewmembers what exactly is happening, without the AI suspecting anything.
Make the drunken star sailor slept with the captain's computer rather than the captain's daughter, and the crew will know that it is necessary to quietly go to the computer room and reset the AI...
Music sets mood. Mood determines survival. Survival determines profit.
Ever whistled or hummed while working? Ever had the stereo on while working? Ever listened to calming music while driving so you dont get angry at those other idiots? Surgeons listen to music while operating, tank drivers listen to music while invading, and the list goes on. Music is a big determiner of human performance, focus, and mood. And those things in space seperate life from death.
Just like shops compare sales with different sound tracks to optimise the in store music for maximum sales, "big space" will compare results with different music in order to optimise human behavior on long space trips. Who knows what the outcome of such trials we be, but as L Dutch suggested, teamwork and bonding can be formed by group singing, and if daily singalongs increase the chance of a ship making it to its destination by 1%, you can bet theyll become company policy.
Work can be boring sometimes. I think everyone who works on a computer on a desk and with internet access probably has their favorite playlists, either to help pass time or to enter into a flow state.
In my case, it just so happens that my favorite playlist is composed of shanties and other pirate-related songs. It was so even I became a pastafarian.
Funny thing - get a lot of nerds together in a small space, and they might start chanting together whatever is currently a meme. I once worked in a very small room with other five colleagues, all of us programmers, all of us fans of Tolkien's work. It was about the time the Hobbit movie came out, so sometimes one of us would start humming the tunes to the Misty Mountains song, and we'd all join in almost as a reflex. We'd sing the lyrics too. It was fun, and it helped us bond.
I imagine in a spaceship you could kinda have the same effect. I would enjoy being a crewmember of ISS if I were an astronaut and if they would sing shanties every once in a while.
Also notice that space pirates are a trope. If your work of fiction has space pirates, they are expected to sing shanties every once in a while!
Last but not least. I used to play Sid Meyer's Alpha Centauri as the Nautilus Pirates - and I would mute the in-game's music and have The Dreadnoughts playing on Spotify for a more proper musical background.
As long as you have hard work or work that needs to be timed, you can have a shanty
So for example, if you have crew that need to haul ammunition from storage to the guns, they can sing a shanty for that. If the engineering crew needs to do some work in sync, shanties will work there as well.
If you give the crew radio headsets, they can even sing the same shanty if they aren't in the same room.
In most sci fi stories tasks like that are either not shown (since the "camera" is only showing the bridge personnel and not the lowly grunts) or automated by robots/pipes/... so you might have to come up with an explanation why this is different here.
Coordinating of fighter maneuvers could also benefit from shanties, that tell the pilots what to do and when to do it.
Also, you could take some inspiration from the free indie game Cosmoteer. In that game, energy is delivered using battery packs, and they need to be carried by the crew from the generator to the devices that require power. Might need a good explanation why it's done that way, but it makes for a very nice game mechanic that would fit well with shanties.
Read Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Memory of Whiteness" (I think that's the one...). It's a book (in part) about how music holds people together across the vast tracts of space. What else do we have (in all that slow emptiness) except music to keep us sane?
It's not just about work. It's about filling the drawn-out reality of nothingness with something like human meaning...
Not really, and there is why
A space ship is a complex structure, more so or maybe in some sense comporable with sea ships of today, or a factory, or a nuclear station.
Work to keep the thing going is complex, and deversified. We split any complex task in subtasks and everyone assigned a subtask, and in some sense those are unique task, each has its own tempo.
However teambuilding and corporation loyalty building is known thing, so as to use singing songs as part of the process.
Where it may make sense are special cases, where you do not have means of automatically check connection or keep distress signal going, have doubts about your radio link working properly or something like that. I can imagine belters from The Expanse having something like that, and in some way thye did, a best they have is worst there is and thing break regularly. However, if your oxygen is limited then maybe not the best idea.
Singing hymns as some identification of belongings also known thing.
So, no, you have complex tasks and complx problems to focus on, where a mistake of one can cost lives of everyone, now or later on, and last thing you wish for is to make additional distractions to all who are busy.
In free time, yes songs can be part of relaxation, switching brains to a different tasks, and serve as one of many possible team building exercises, indirecty.
Songs are good when many do similar task, also they are not bad to get in a transe and carry one some mundane task along the day, but I ensure you, they are incompatible with 50 position checklist just to start an engine.
Need a handwavium, here, I have a piece of one.
They do not sing songs, song is song to them by an AI which has feedback from the brain activity via neurolink from one it sings a song to. Reason is, as it does basicaly the same thing when people use listening to songs while working or working out - to stimulate their activity for the task they do.
And if AI can automaticaly generate a good tune and sing "insert a part XX after part YY, halliuha of parts, checkbox 27 done, I love u so much how outstanding worker you are, keep it up part ZZ in slot XY, man u sooogreat.."
I guess it may work improving quality of work and reduce failure rates. There are devices on trains which detect if driver fall asleep or died, so why not to monitor a situation and brain waves to play some relaxing tunes to that specific individual (which is different for different people, heavy mettal is good for sound sleep in my opinion) and stimulate awareness in when it is needed. In some sense one "sleeps" when it is posible, even if it is 5 second, and be more alert next 3 seconds for critical button pressing. It like energy saving features of modern cpu's, individualy generated sound waves to stimulate and relax different brain regions may improve something, and even be a hard scify. Changing speed or tempo(few percent, not noticiable) can help to syncronise subtasks in stiching them together in a bigger system, done right then with reduced fatigue, less down time, higher spirits etc. There are types of work where hearig channel is more free than other senses, and thus can be used.
Many thousands of years ago, the Brunnen-G fought in the Great Insect War, forever earning fame and gratitude as the saviours of mankind after they managed to defeat the fearsome insect race. They fought this war from the Dark Zone, in which their home-world of Brunnis-1 was located, however the war itself was fought in the Light Zone. https://lexx.fandom.com/wiki/Brunnen-G
One of the important things in a team is to get along.
In itself, singing, playing or just listening to music together can (as others have pointed out) accomplish this to some extent.
But recent research shows that moving rhythmically in synch forms extremely close bonds or rapport between members of a group: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/moving-in-sync-creates-surprising-social-bonds-among-people/.
So it'd make psychological sense if some activities were ritualized with song and rhythmic movement.
For example, when they all go to the mess hall together, as they pick up the food and utensils, and sit together; or when clearing up and washing up their dishes.
Or just things like going through the shift-handover checklist: important, repetitive, tedious activities which are otherwise likely to be halfassed.
Also any drudge-work. On a spaceship, there's unlikely to be automation for cleaning, greasing, painting and polishing every damn thing, because all such automation is mass and volume, and all such automation means then the automation needs cleaning, greasing, painting and polishing, recursively ad infinitum. So, whilt a Roomba-floor-scrubber might mean the decks don't literally need to be scrubbed, preventitive maintenance is going to be a responsibility of every single person on board.
On Navy ships, as well as being essential maintenance, this kind of "scrub the decks make-work" also serves the multiple purposes of keeping people fit, busy, occupied and cooperating, rather than out of shape, lazy, bored and troublemaking.
Homesickness and nostalgia
Travelers on long voyages miss home, and many voyage songs express that longing. It's reasonable to expect that space travel would be no exception. This is in fact the premise of Robert A. Heinlein's short story, "The Green Hills of Earth", about the composition of a song of the same title:
We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.
(Incidentally, in my head this song is sung to the tune of "Oh Susanna" -- which perhaps means it's not technically a sea shanty, but I think it's close enough.)
Repetitive work and morale-building are still necessary in space, as people have mentioned in their answers already. It also serves to develop and retain culture, particularly in communities where oral tradition is stronger than the written word.
The books/TV show The Expanse features space shanties, as people live and work in space and need the rhythm and sense of community.
I feel one idea not touched upon others here is to record and pass on historic events of cultural significance to the space-faring people. I also feel like space chanties might exist to warn people about specific survival tips for specific regions of space and/or exo-biomes.
There are certain operations on the spaceship that require a consensus among several pilots to perform. Otherwise, the ship simply will not respond. This is to prevent a single deranged pilot from scuttling the mission. Several pilots have to hit a certain sequence of buttons in a certain cadence. They can't use electronic tools for synchronizing, because those tools activate a sensor in the ship that disables the response.
So they fell back on the space chantey. For some strange reason, they revived nineteenth century sea chanteys, because the captured complex rhythms in an easy way. A sample:
'Twas in twenty hundred and twenty three Of June the thirteenth day That our gallant ship, her orbit slipped And for Saturn bore away, brave boys, And for Saturn bore away.
Shanties can serve as a rite of passage — including the ultimate one —, invoking tradition and providing solace.
A few simple statements:
despite space faring technology and all the automation it implies, human work is still the primary means of labor.
on a space ship there are no natural day/night cycles but lots of long, time consuming chores required to keep the space ship in order.
On a sea-faring ship any disagreement and dissent can be lethal to the entire crew. A space ship has those dangers cranked up to 11.
unity and cooperation are required.
This all means you need some way to clear monotony and create unity to keep the crew on track. Shanties are a great way to do that and just about every establishment knows. The army, churches and even businesses use singing to get people involved into their alloted tasks, help unify them (interesting fact is that singing synchronises heartbeats due to the breathing pattern required to sing the same lines) and in general keeps spirits up.
As a bonus you could add culture to it as a reason they chose shanties over other forms of team building.
As a tool to pass information to others who have no background in the current tasks being performed.
Unlike a space ship many sections will be sound-proof as a result of making all sections air-tight in case one section depressurises. This means sections can have their own shanties that give information about the current tasks being performed and what they are doing.
This is an extremely important and useful way of running the ship. Space-ships will have many specialized tasks that only a few can perform. So if you need a crew of 10 to perform a task but you only have 2 specialist capable of performing the task at hand you need a way to tell them.
The shanties sung are controlled by the specialists who choose the verses being sung. The verse tells in layman terms what tasks need to be done and how. Some verses are structured like the "bottles of beer on the wall" verses where you can count up or down depending on how many times a task needs to be performed and how many are performing it at a time. Highly repetitive tasks can be represented as parts of the beat with a single syllabel or word, more complex tasks can be entire verses punctuated by the simpler tasks.
This gives people who enter an area a sense of what is happening and if the machinery in that section is A-OK or about to blow. People can more easily jump in and help with tasks. They know what to do as they are guided by the specialists who pick the tasks and during quieter times when a specialist might not be required all that you need is to teach some crew the right shanty. This makes all crew valuable and useable in most area's.
As @philipp says "Memorizing Checklists" is a great example. Taken to the extreme you get the cult of mechanicus from the Warhammer 40k universe where the underlying understanding of the technology has been lost and all you have is rituals for how to do things.
For example the song of glue setting to allow enough bonding time or the song of paint drying to allow time between cotes.