Song-writing in Music Therapy

  • Laura Teutsch
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Song-writing is a popular intervention in music therapy and can be adapted to work in a wide range of populations.  Let me tell you about some of the variations, how they work, and how they help.

Lyric substitution: This version of the song-writing intervention is the most accessible and the most flexible.  Lyric substitution involves the personalization of familiar songs.  It can be done with almost any song!  The client or therapist will choose a song that has significance and the therapist will prepare a lyric sheet that has some words or phrases removed and left blank.  The client’s role is to fill in those blanks with words that are more meaningful for them.  Once the client has filled in some or all of the blanks, the therapist and/or client can sing through the new song.  This can lead to greater self-awareness, increased self-esteem, self-acceptance, and group cohesion if conducted in a group setting.

How about an example? Try adding your own words in these blanks of Heart of Gold by Neil Young.  As you try this, know that it does not have to be literal, it does not have to rhyme, and it does not have to be the same number of syllables as the original.

Heart of Gold – Neil Young

I want to ____________, I want to ____________

I’ve been a miner for _________________

It’s these expressions I never give

That keeps me searchin’ for __________________

And I’m getting old

Keeps me searchin’ for __________________

And I’m getting old

Lyric writing: This variation is the next most accessible.  In this variation, the client writes the full lyrics to an original song.  This could mean that the client is fully independent in writing the lyrics and the therapist’s role is to contribute the accompanying music.  Or it could mean that the client speaks while the therapist writes down the client’s words and then together they turn them into lyrics.  Or it could mean that the therapist uses words and phrases spoken by the client to create lyrics.  Once the lyrics to a new song have been created, they can be put to the melody of an existing song that has meaning for the client, or the therapist can create the accompanying music.

Complete song composition: This option is often the most intimidating for adults in music therapy.  However, it can also be modified so that the client has as much assistance from the music therapist as they need to feel comfortable.  When it comes to writing the musical part of the composition, if the client feels that they cannot do this themselves, the therapist can suggest two or more contrasting musical ideas for the client to choose from.  This can then be adapted and changed as much as is needed for the client to feel that it is truly their music.

The song-writing process can also be adapted to meet the needs of children.  Let me give you an example of how a young girl wrote a song in music therapy sessions with me.  After writing lyrics about her beloved cat, she wanted to put the words to music.  So, on the keyboard we put a different coloured sticker on five different notes.  We then went through each word of her song and she played each of the five notes until she found the one that sounded right with that word.  Finally, using coloured pencil crayons we coloured each word to match the colour of the note she chose on the keyboard.  With this, she could play the piano by matching the colours while singing her own words.

Song composition can be a wonderful tool in music therapy because, while having all the same effects as mentioned in lyric substitution, it can also provide a physical reminder of accomplishments and steps taken towards growth or healing.  A song can be written down or recorded and the client can take it home.  They can show it to their loved ones or they can keep it private.  Either way, the client has something tangible that they created during the music therapy process.

Thank you for reading about song-writing interventions in music therapy! As always, feel free to reach out if you’re curious about how today’s blog post may be specifically applicable to your situation. I’d love to chat with you!