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«SONGWRITING IN THERAPY BY JOHN A. DOWNES A Final Project submitted to the Campus Alberta Applied Psychology: Counselling Initiative In partial ...»

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replicated later on.

The role of the therapist is to create a safe and playful atmosphere in which clients can explore the musical potential of improvisation. Therapists will likely take the lead in beginning to sing lyrics to the improvisation. In doing so, they should choose to use words that focus on the goals of therapy and the needs of the client. Inspiration for the initial words may come from a title that a client has chosen for the improvisation prior to beginning it. For example, a client may choose the title of “Volcano” for the improvisation, and as the music builds, the therapist may introduce the words “It’s gonna blow, it’s gonna blow. What makes you feel like a volcano?” This may set up a lyrical/melodic dialogue between the therapist and client that takes place as part of the improvisation. As the dialogue expands, the songwriting takes place in a natural and playful manner. Roberts (2006) suggests other techniques such as improvised call and response songs, improvised songs based on feelings, ideas or memories, and improvised songs that are directed by either the therapist or the client.

Format Although possible to do in a group setting, the intimacy and safety of an individual session would likely be more facilitative of improvised songwriting. For this method to be effective, the connection between the improvising participants needs to be focused, safe, and fully in the present moment. This may not be as possible in a group.

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Therapists need to create a safe place for improvisation and songwriting.

This may include being in an isolated room where no one else can hear the participant’s playful interaction. Knowing that others cannot hear the improvisation may allow clients more freedom to experiment with sound and selfexpression without fear of judgment.

Suitable instruments will need to be provided, and clients will need to be prepared for what to expect. In fact, having previously introduced improvisation and having clients achieve a comfort level with it is quite beneficial. The most important aspect of improvisation is knowing that there is no right way or wrong way of improvising: There is only playing, accepting other’s efforts, and remaining in the here and now.

Procedures Gradually introduce improvisation into therapy sessions by exploring various instruments and playing together. Therapists may begin improvisation by asking clients to play an instrument in a complimentary way to a basic beat. The next step might be trading roles and having the client lead an improvisation so that the therapist must follow the client’s rhythms and dynamics. Following this the therapist may introduce playing instruments in a manner of having a conversation (call and response). These exercises will aid in encouraging a feeling of comfort and safety in improvising. Using titles for improvisations, or improvising to a story are ways to begin using words and music together. In fact, telling a story with musical accompaniment may influence the inflection and tone

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Finally, the therapist or client may begin using a singing voice during improvisation. Themes that clients or therapists have identified may make up the chorus of an improvised song. The chorus provides a grounding home base to return to after the more experimental verse sections are played. Verses may come from clients in a spontaneous manner, or they may be in response to questions the therapist poses in improvising lyrics. When therapists pose questions it may be beneficial to include the client’s name so that it does not appear to the client that the question is a rhetorical one.

Data Interpretation As with all the other techniques presented in this guide, it is suggested to have clients interpret their own data. Therapists can ask questions to help clients understand their songwriting and their participation. If therapists note client progress as evidenced through songwriting materials, then they should bring these observations to the clients themselves to seek confirmation or input.

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics When beginning the process of improvisational practice, therapists may find that they need to take the lead by providing strong and grounding rhythms.

As the clients’ comfort level increases, they may participate by taking the leadership role, or participate as truly equal partners while feeling safe with a variety of musical expression. This is akin to having a give and take style of conversation.

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Attributed to: Rickson and Watkins (2003) adapted by John Downes.

Salient Features The blues song format provides a structured 12-bar pattern of music that can support an improvised melody and lyrical content of varying length. The flexibility of the blues format allows clients to participate with ease. The blues are sung over a set progression of three chords, and since it is the basis for many rock and soul styles of music, the format and sound of it is familiar to many client populations.

Clinical Uses In this incarnation of the blues, the song is used as an opportunity to share a complaint or a negative aspect of one’s life. However, the last line of the song encourages clients to express the good side of the previously sung complaint. In effect, this song format can be used to encourage clients to reframe their problems or situations.

Client Prerequisites Clients need to have the ability to verbally express themselves. They may need encouragement and support from therapists, but they should eventually be able to identify the positive aspects of their lives that help counteract or reframe the negative aspects they have expressed.

Therapist Skills Therapists need to be able to perform a blues song pattern on an instrument such as a guitar, piano, or keyboard and also sing a blues-style

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of the format for this technique and help clients write and improvise their own blues verses with the elements of reframing their identified issues.


1. Writing simple verses in a 12-bar blues style of music that express a complaint and resolve the complaint through reframing it in the last line.

Media and Roles Various musical instruments can be used to play the blues. A guitar, piano, keyboard or Omnichord are capable of producing the chord sounds that are necessary for the sound of the blues. Electronic instruments may also provide accompaniment patterns that include other instrument sounds such as a rhythm track and bass track.

The role of the therapist is to give some information about the blues as a song format. This can include the history of the blues, the influence of the blues, and the typical use of the blues as a vehicle for the lyrical expression of discontent. Therapists also need to explain the concept of reframing to clients, and give examples of reframing both in a verbal context and within the context of the blues format used in this activity.

The role of the clients is to think of something in their lives that they might complain about, and then think of a reframe to help them challenge their complaint or resolve it. Clients help write the song lyrics and perform it with the help of the therapist who provides musical support through singing and musical accompaniment.

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Blues songwriting can take place in individual or group session formats.

Group format will require clients to take turns, or provide equal amounts of input to verses that are written by the group.

Preparation Required Therapists need to rehearse playing and singing in the 12-bar blues style.

It is advisable to learn how to play the blues in a few different keys so that various voice ranges can be accommodated. To learn the basics of blues style, therapists can access the information by using an Internet search engine and the search term “12-bar blues chord progression”. Therapists need to be prepared to record the lyrics on paper, or prepare song sheet handouts for clients that provide examples, instructions, and room to write their own verses.

Procedures Therapists start by introducing the blues song format and the concept of reframing. Therapists provide examples of the blues format by performing prewritten verses for the clients. Instructions are given to clients and clients begin writing their complaints in short sentences that fit the song structure. Clients may be able to reframe their own complaints, but therapists should be prepared to engage in questioning clients to help them conceive their own reframing. An example of a blues handout follows.

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Blues lyrics contain some of the most autobiographical and revealing statements in the Western musical tradition. Blues lyrics are often intensely personal and often deal with the pain of betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love or with unhappy situations such as being jobless, hungry, broke, away from home, lonely, or downhearted.

The early blues were very irregular rhythmically and usually followed speech patterns. The meter of the blues is usually written in iambic pentameter.

The first line is generally repeated and third line is different from the first two. The repetition of the first line serves a purpose as it gives the singer some time to come up with a third line.

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Okay, you've got the idea; now write at least two verses of your own to share with the group. Write one verse expressing a complaint, then turn the complaint around and look on the bright side by starting line three with "Still" or "But" (as in example one). For your second verse, write whatever you want. If you can think of more than two, go for it!

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Success in the clients’ ability to reframe their issues will be evident in the last line of their blues verse, as will success in learning how to reframe through the process of the writing itself. Ultimately clients should be the ones who evaluate their own efforts, but evidence of the clients’ skill in reframing will likely be evident in other areas of therapy if they have learned the concept and appreciate knowing how to change their perspectives. Therapists may want to track the incidents and frequency that clients use reframing independently.

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics Therapists can offer and encourage support through this song format.

Rickson and Watkins (2003) state, “the blues framework invite[s] echoing of short phrases sung by peers thereby leading to affirmation and support within the group” (p. 289). This song format encourages honesty in communicating aspects of one’s life in which discontent is experienced. As such, it gives permission for clients to express themselves freely, and thus can help build a trusting and accepting therapeutic relationship. Lefevre (2004) writes, “Listening carefully to their compositions and improvisations and musically mirroring, reflecting and supporting them will allow [clients] to experience being met, accepted and understood” (p. 340).

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In making suggestions for interpretation of the data in the previous section on songwriting techniques, a constructivist and emancipatory paradigm has been used to emphasize the client as expert position of interpretation. Having clients interpret their process, product, and experience of songwriting provides important feedback to therapists and clients alike. To begin, feedback on the process gives clients and therapists a better understanding of the dynamics in their relationship, their roles as co-creators, and the ways in which the process was viewed (e.g., as work or play). Having direct client feedback on the product allows clients and therapists to have some insight into the meaning that clients have given their words and music. This is perhaps most important because words, especially in poetic/lyrical form, may represent ideas and concepts quite different from their defined meanings in speech. So too with music, where the standards of feelings attributed to certain keys, modes, dynamics and tempi, may be quite different for clients than is commonly accepted in western cultural forms of interpretation.

To complicate the matter, the social constructionist approach recognizes not only the influence of social, cultural, and historical contexts (Burr, cited in Haley, 2002), but also the influence of the conversational interactions with therapists. “Constructionists argue that ideas, concepts, and memories arise from social interchange and are mediated through language” (Hoffman, cited in Haley, 2002, p. 24). It seems then, that as therapists inquire into the meaning that clients give their songs that the inquiry itself will affect the data. Thus, clients may adapt their perspectives on their written lyrics as a result of being encouraged to

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constructionist worldview by stating that “a) realities are socially constructed, b) realities are constituted through language, c) realities are organized and maintained through narrative, and d) there are no essential truths” (p. 24). In interpreting clients’ songwriting data, these points are worthwhile keeping in mind as they reiterate and reinforce the idea that reality is subjective yet very real to each client. These concepts encourage therapists to be respectful of client’s worldviews and how they make meaning in their use of language, and how the social interaction of therapeutic work influences clients and therapists, and thus the process, product and experiences of creative expression.

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