The sea is a popular subject for singers and songwriters across several genres. Sometimes, it appears as a metaphor. Other times, it’s the subject of the song. But whether its place in the musical narrative is literal or figurative, it makes for some compelling music.
Here are some of the best songs about the sea.
“Where Corals Lie” by Janet Baker
Song Year: 1965
“Where Corals Lie” typifies Edward Elgar’s atmospheric writing at his best. It is part four of a song cycle for low voice called “Sea Pictures.” In Janet Baker’s capable hands, listeners can hear the tidal lilt of the melody as she plumbs the depths of the music and the places where corals lie.
“Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin
Song Year: 1958
“Beyond the Sea” is the English rendition of “La Mer.” The song was composed in French by Charles Trenet.
But in 1958, Bobby Darin got hold of the English version of the song, and it quickly became his signature song.
While Darin’s version is now one of the jazz standards of the modern age, Trenet’s French rendition features on the popular TV show Lost.
“Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles
Song Year: 1966
No list of songs about the sea would be complete without mentioning The Beatles' classic, “Yellow Submarine.”
Because the release of “Yellow Submarine” dovetailed with Lennon’s infamous observation about the Beatles’ increasing popularity, what appeared to be a nonsense song about the sea underwent all kinds of political scrutiny.
“Four Sea Interludes” by Boston Symphony Orchestra
Song Year: 1990
Benjamin Britten wrote this series of four interludes in 1945. The four movements include:
- Sunday Morning
The music is a condensed, orchestral arrangement of scenes from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes.
Pay particular attention to “Storm.” In it, a village stands by and lets the sea drown the murderous Peter Grimes, even as he calls for help.
“In Haven” by Janet Baker
Song Year: 1965
“Sea Pictures” is too good a song cycle to feature just once on this list of songs about the sea.
In “In Haven,” Elgar uses the tempestuousness of the sea to contrast the steadfastness of love.
“Under the Sea” by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
Song Year: 1989
Few songs are as readily evocative of the sea as Walt Disney’s classic musical number. In “Under the Sea,” mermaid Ariel dreams of life above water, even as her companions try to persuade her life under the sea is better.
“Les Berceaux” by Gabriel Faure
Song Year: 1879
Gabriel Faure’s “Les Berceaux” is another example of a song about the sea. Written as a cradle song, Faure uses waltz time to give the music the lilt and rock of a cradle and the ebbing tide.
The lyrics reinforce this image by comparing the rocking ships in the port to the cradles women rock on the shore.
“Farewell to Carlingford” by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Mackem
Song Year: 1968
“Farewell to Carlingford” is another love song to the sea. Tommy Mackem wrote it, inspired by his beloved Northern Irish town.
It tells the story of a young man with wanderlust and a love of the sea that eclipses even the feelings he harbors for beautiful Mary Doyle.
“Across the Sea” by Weezer
Song Year: 1996
In “Across the Sea,” the speaker receives a letter from a foreign correspondent.
The letter is innocuous, asking about hobbies and other interests, but the distance and seas between them give the speaker pause about furthering the communication.
But even as he realizes pursuing the correspondence makes no sense, he can’t help thinking about sending his message back across the sea.
“Coast of High Barbary” by Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers
Song Year: 1941
“The Coast of High Barbary” comes from a much older folk song that musicologists date to approximately the 1590s. It describes a collision between a pirate ship and a navy vessel on the Barbary Coast, now the Rif Coast in North Africa. The God-fearing sailors triumph and leave the pirates to drown.
“Come Sail Away” by Styx
Song Year: 1977
This song about the sea combines Styx’s progressive rock sensibility with the ballad tradition.
The result is a song that takes the sea and sailing and extrapolates a moving message about our need to pursue our dreams.
It features in several films and television series, including:
- South Park
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
- The Virgin Suicides
“Sail On, Sailor” by The Beach Boys
Song Year: 1973
Written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, with input from other band members, “Sail On, Sailor” was released in 1973.
Despite Wilson’s protestations that he never liked the song, it remains a favorite with listeners.
Several people attempted the vocal line, but it was Blondie Chaplin’s version of it that the group ended up using. Since the release of “Sail On, Sailor,” it has been covered by various artists, including:
- Steve Hunter
- Ray Kennedy
- The Bluetones
“Wading in the Velvet Sea” by Phish
Song Year: 1998
This is another love song where the sea becomes a metaphor. It explores themes of distance and communication as the speaker writes and then destroys a letter to a former love.
Atypically for Phish, the song has a more contemplative feel and less of the funk sound associated with Phish’s music.
“The Grey Funnel Line” by Cyril Tawney
Song Year: 1959
When not singing, Cyril Tawney was a naval submariner, and Tawney's nautical knowledge comes through in “The Grey Funnel Line.” It has the rhythmic feel of a sea shanty.
“The Grey Funnel Line” is the affectionate name given by sailors to the Royal Navy.
But “The Grey Funnel Line” is about more than the sea or even the navy. It’s a song about longing and homesickness. It also touches on the monotony of sea life, a sentiment conveyed by the unadorned, unaccompanied melodic line.
“Captain Kennedy” by Neil Young
Song Year: 1980
Neil Young is another musician familiar with the sea. So, the enduring power of “Captain Kennedy” as one of the best songs about the sea comes as no surprise.
The song takes inspiration from the historical Captain Louis Kennedy, whose ship was sunk by a German U-Boat during the Second World War.
“Don’t Fight the Sea” by The Beach Boys
Song Year: 2011
The Beach Boys wrote and released this song in 2011 after a tsunami devastated parts of Japan.
Other songs about the sea on this list are meditations on the beauty of the sea or else use it as a metaphor for something larger than itself. “Don’t Fight the Sea” is a powerful reminder that the sea can be as destructive as it is beautiful.
“Ship Ahoy” by The O’Jays
Song Year: 1973
“Ship Ahoy,” the eponymous song from an album of the same title, is one of many politically-motivated songs the O’Jays featured on their album.
In particular, “Ship Ahoy” uses soul music to explore themes of slavery and freedom. Attentive listeners can hear:
- Creaking wood
The result is an unsettling commentary on the treatment displaced people endured en route to America.
“To the Sea” by Jack Johnson
Song Year: 2010
In “To the Sea,” Jack Johnson joins hundreds of other artists before him who turned the sea into metaphor.
In the case of Johnson’s music, the sea symbolizes self-knowledge and the quest for truth. The speaker sends his son away to sea to uncover truths that are larger than life.
“Binary Sea” by Death Cab for Cutie
Song Year: 2015
This song about the sea tells the story of Atlas, the mythical Titan who carried the sky on his shoulders.
Unlike other songs about the sea, the one Death cab for Cutie is interested in is information. The music explores how, with seas of information at our fingertips, we risk being more disconnected than ever from the people around us.
“This is the Sea” by The Waterboys
Song Year: 1985
This is another song about the sea, exploring themes of discovery and understanding yourself.
Mike Scott leads the vocal line. He also wrote the song, including roughly 20 verses, so that he could pick and choose his favorites.
The instrumentation features:
The result is an incredibly evocative seascape-style harmony. But because this is hard to reproduce live, “This is the Sea” rarely features in concerts by The Waterboys.
“Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison
Song Year: 1970
As with many of Van Morrison’s songs, “Into the Mystic” is full of themes of spiritual renewal and exploration.
But in “Into the Mystic,” Morrison couches this exploration in terms of boats and the sea. Both are recurrent images throughout the song. This is appropriate since water has a long tradition of religious symbolism.
To further conjure sounds of the sea, Morrison’s tenor saxophone appears as a credible fog horn, conjuring the sights and sounds of Irish docks.
“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
Song Year: 1968
Otis Redding started writing what he then called “Dock of the Bay” while on tour with the Bar-Kays.
He kept adding to the lyrics, and eventually, this song about the sea was released in 1968.
One of the most notable features of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” is the whistling at the end of the track. Many people debate who does the whistling, attributing it to Sam Taylor, the guitarist. However, Redding’s fellow musicians insist that in the final cut, it was Redding who whistled.
“Sea Within a Sea” by The Horrors
Song Year: 2009
This is another song about the sea that uses the sea as a metaphor to discuss our search for truth and purpose. Crucially, it reminds us that there will always be tides of incoming fears, but we can’t let them eclipse our dreams.
Critics describe “Sea Within a Sea” as the moment when The Horrors began developing a more mature sound. The song combines several musical influences, making it musically more interesting than standard garage rock.
“La Mer” by The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Song Year: 1990
Debussy wrote “La Mer” in 1905. Although it’s now a staple of twentieth-century classical music, it was initially unpopular, even with Debussy’s supporters.
This song about the sea has several movements, including:
- From Dawn Til Noon
- Play of the Waves
- Dialogue of the Wind and Sea
It’s a piece that captures the changeability of the sea. Often, it uses cross-rhythms and atypical beats to achieve this effect.
“Frobisher Bay” by James Gordon
Song Year: 1993
Lyrical and haunting, James Gordon’s “Frobisher Bay” is another reminder that the sea can be an uncompromising place to earn your living.
It tells the story of a doomed whaling expedition. The whaling ship becomes frozen in ice, leaving the sailors stranded and far from their loved ones.
“Oh, Sail Away” by The Kingston Trio
Song Year: 1961
The lyrics for this song about the sea were written by John Phillips. But it’s the recording by The Kingston Trio that most people recognize.
Like many songs that debuted during the American Folk Revival, “Oh, Sail Away” makes prominent use of a banjo. Its jaunty chords help emphasize the rhythm of the piece.
“The Eddystone Light” by The Weavers
Song Year: 1950
Fast-paced and fun, this song about the sea shows The Weavers at their playful best. Drawing on folkloric tradition, it takes a tongue-in-cheek look at some of the superstitions associated with the sea.
At the same time, its chorus echoes the sea shanties that played a part in Seeger’s early career with The Almanac Singers.
“The Sinking of the Reuben James” by The Kingston Trio
Song Year: 1961
Woody Guthrie wrote “The Sinking of the Reuben James” to commemorate the sinking of an American naval boat off the coast of Iceland.
The Reuben James had few survivors. The haunting refrain of the folk song, demanding the names of the dead, is a powerful reminder that historical events can overshadow the smaller, personal tragedies.
“Lost Sailor” by The Grateful Dead
Song Year: 1980
Like other songs about the sea, The Grateful Dead’s “Lost Sailor” uses the sea and sea imagery to wrestle with life’s unanswerable questions. It’s apparent that the speaker doesn’t have all the answers, but he never stops trying to find them.
“Tenerife Sea” by Ed Sheeran
Song Year: 2014
Ed Sheeran wrote “Tenerife Sea” after failing to win an award in the 2013 Grammy Awards ceremony.
But that’s not what the song’s about. Rather, it’s a love song. The speaker repeatedly compares his sweetheart’s eyes to the blue of the Tenerife sea. It’s a beautiful, moving song, and critics often and favorably compare it with other ballads like:
- “Wonderful Tonight”
- “In Those Jeans”
“Sloop John B” by The Weavers
Song Year: 1966
“Sloop John B” was made famous by The Beach Boys. But the folk song is older than that.
It’s a Bahamian folk song that appears in written tradition as early as 1916. The Weavers had previously recorded the song in 1950, but it was The Beach Boys' folk-rock rendition of the song, appearing on their album Pet Sounds that brought it to popular attention.
It’s distinctive for its complex a capella section, which is unlike anything The Beach Boys had attempted before.
“When I Was a Lad I Served a Term” by D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
Song Year: 2004
Whether they’re writing about the sea, politics, or parties, Gilbert and Sullivan are invariably funny.
“When I was a Lad” from their operetta H.M.S. Pinafore is an excellent example. This ribald song about the sea pokes fun at the ridiculous structure of the British naval system.
“Octopus Garden” by The Beatles
Song Year: 1969
Finally, “Octopus Garden” is another Beatles song. Ringo Starr wrote it in 1969. The story is that inspiration struck after an attempt to order the classically British fish and chips got him squid instead.
This led to what Starr found a fascinating discussion about octopuses and their ability to navigate the sea. It was the last Beatles song to feature Starr on vocals. After this, he stuck to percussion.
Top Songs About the Sea, Final Thoughts
The sea is a perennial favorite for musicians and composers. It provides a compelling way to explore meaningful themes like love, life, and loss, but it’s interesting in its own right, too.
Crucially, no two songs about the sea are the same. The stories in these songs are as changeable as the sea. So, have a listen. You might find a new favorite.