Songwriting in Music Therapy Practice

Jones, J.D. (2006). Songs composed for use in music therapy: A survey of original songwriting practices of music therapists. Journal of Music Therapy, 43(2), 94-110.

Songwriting is a powerful yet flexible technique. Among many purposes and applications, music therapists write original material to personalize sessions, teach non-musical material or behaviors, and engage in the therapeutic process. MT-BCs help clients write songs to express personal feelings or perspectives, participate in a healthy way and to be part of a group project, or reminisce and contribute to their lasting legacy.

Extant literature has researched the extra-musical benefits of singing songs, listening to music, and discussing lyrics, as well the clinical efficacy of songwriting. “Songwriting has been documented as effective in achieving a number of clinical goals, including increasing verbal communication (Edwards, 1998), increasing socialization and interaction among group members (Hilliard, 2001), identifying and improving self-concept and self-esteem (Edgerton, 1990; Freed, 1987) increasing the expression of feelings (Cordobes, 1997; Kennelly, 2001; O’Callaghan, 1996), increasing a sense of cohesion among group members (Cordobes, 1997; Freed, 1987), and increasing coping skills, such as problem solving (Edgerton, 1990). Process songwriting is an effective technique for both individual and group therapy, and is a preferred intervention by certain clients (Gallagher & Steele, 2002)” (Jones, 2006, p. 96).

Writing a song can be done using many different methods. Original lyrics “piggybacked” to a familiar melody, or perhaps melodies can be built from client improvisations and verbal contributions. Songs can be prepared by the therapist in advance in order to target specific client goals. Instructional songs can be used to teach appropriate behaviors or to teach task analysis of daily living skills. Social stories can be sung in song and/or set to musical accompaniment. In addition to using these songwriting strategies supported by research, therapists will innovate new methods and applications. Songwriting is an exciting technique teeming with creative opportunities.

Jennifer Jones (2006) wanted to learn more about songwriting in music therapy practice. This post has summarized some of her literature review, and the following information is presented based on her survey: Seventy-three percent of 302 respondents acknowledged inclusion of original music in their work. Music therapists tended to report that songwriting was generally easy or almost always easy, and though participants learned through school and internship programs, songwriting skills were most frequently reported to be developed on their own, on the job. The most highly rated compositional choice was musical similarity to client preferences.

MT-BCs serving early childhood, schools, and individuals with developmental disabilities were much more likely to write songs than therapists working in older adult and mental health settings. Goals areas addressed through songwriting included emotional-expression (42 respondents), cognitive-academic-learning (37), behavioral-attentional-task-directed (25), social-communication goals (25), multiple goal categories marked (25), speech-communication (23), social-interaction (19), physical-movement (15), creativity goals (4), no response (4), and spirituality goals (2). No respondents reported using songwriting for musical goals. In descending order of rated frequency, music therapists decided to write songs because original material can be individualized, is novel and stimulating, renews creativity, strengthens the therapeutic relationship, offers a break from routine, and sometimes just because identifying an applicable composed song is time-consuming.

Cordobes, T.K. (1997). Group songwriting as a method for developing group cohesion for HIV-seropositive adult patients with depression. Journal of Music Therapy, 34, 46-67.

Edgerton, C.D. (1990). Creative group songwriting. Music Therapy Perspectives, 8,15-19.

Edwards, J. (1998). Music therapy for children with severe burns. Music Therapy Perspectives, 16, 21-26.

Freed, B.S. (1987). Songwriting with the chemically dependent. Music Therapy Perspectives, 4, 13-18.

Gallagher, L.M., & Steele, A.L. (2002). Music therapy with offenders in a substance abuse/mental illness treatment program. Music Therapy Perspectives, 20, 117-122.

Hilliard, R. (2001). The use of cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of women with eating disorders. Music Therapy Perspectives, 19, 109–113.

Jones, J.D. (2006). Songs composed for use in music therapy: A survey of original songwriting practices of music therapists. Journal of Music Therapy, 43(2), 94-110.

Kennelly, J. (2001). Music therapy in the bone marrow transplant unit: Providing emotional support during adolescence. Music Therapy Perspectives, 19, 104-108.

O’Callaghan, C.C. (1996). Lyrical themes in songs written by palliative care patients. Journal of Music Therapy, 33, 74-92.

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Repertoire Challenge 04: Songwriting

This fourth challenge concludes our first month of Repertoire Challenges. Today, or this week, or whenever you read this post, remember the many genres and populations you have memorized repertoire for. Think of the musical attributes, the lyrics, the clinical applications. For this final Challenge, have fun piggybacking a familiar song with new lyrics. Experiment with blues songwriting. Cut and paste quotes with song lyrics and compose a new poem to freestyle, improvise, or compose a song. Write an entirely original song. Facilitate a group chant, or go for an a cappela body music drum circle. The Challenge today is to consider the many different approaches to songwriting and the eclectic musical styles that can influence your product in order to plan out some new sessions that will be perfectly tailored to your unique clients.

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Repertoire Challenge 03: Memorization

The Rhythm & Reason Blog’s Repertoire Challenge continues every Sunday this April. While driving from session to session,  sitting down to practice guitar, or watering the garden, keep song lyrics in your mind! You’ve thought of different genres, listed songs from each, and now – how many of those songs can you perform from memory? Which genres do you need to work on? Are there any clinical populations that you would like to be musically better prepared for? Are there specific techniques that you’d feel more confident about if you were more familiar with song lyrics or themes? How many songs can you memorize this week? How many do you want memorized in three months? Challenge 03: How many do you have memorized right now? What do you need to do in order to reach your memorization goals?

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Hello & Goodbye Songs

A familiar hello song for many music therapists is piggybacked from “Goodnight Ladies.” This simple tune is great for children and older adults alike. Listen to “Hello Friends!” and quickly memorize the lyrics: “Hello friends, hello friends, hello friends, I’m glad you’re here today!”

Next, you might greet each group member through song: “Hello Emma, hello Noah, hello Emily, I’m glad you’re here today!” Walk around and engage each person individually. Encourage the whole group to say, “Hello, Emma!” Ask for names if you haven’t yet met, shake hands, check-in, offer high-fives, ask questions, give specific reinforcement. If your group is small enough, or you’re providing one-on-one therapy, you could dedicate a whole refrain to each person.

Finally, conclude your sessions with the same melody but now sing, “Goodbye friends, goodbye friends, goodbye friends, we’ll see you another time!” Some clients may have more success participating if you sing, “Bye bye friends” instead.

What are some other great hello or goodbye songs? Comment below or add your ideas to the Music Therapy Activities Wikia page titled, “Hello Songs” or “Goodbye Songs.” Thank you!

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Repertoire Challenge 01: Genres

Sundays are normally the Rhythm & Reason Blog’s day to evoke curiosity, to ask questions and reflect on our profession and the wondrous world around us. Throughout April, these Sundays are going to be serialized to find out how well you know your repertoire. First challenge: Can you name at least ten different music genres?

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