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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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Title: Listening for the Lyrical Attributed to: Denborough (2002), Lefevre (2004), and Speedy (2005) Salient Features The writing of Denborough and Speedy inspires this technique of listening for lyrical material. The beauty of this method is that the lyrics come directly from clients’ conversations with the therapist without them thinking of purposefully constructing poetic language.

Clinical Uses This method of recording the way clients use language may help them understand and gain insight into the kinds of messages they are expressing both to themselves and others. Clients and therapists may gain insight into clients’ worldviews through using this technique. The act of recording clients’ words gives both client and therapist a document on which to reflect, both for examination of the here and now, as well as a record of self-expression to which later ideas and thoughts may be compared. Such comparisons may indicate progress and growth in cognitive and behavioural functioning.

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Clients must be verbal and willing to explore their issues through talk therapy. Clients need to give permission to the therapist to record their words in written form for the purposes of constructing song lyrics. Consent for participation in the co-creative process must be given.

Therapist Skills Therapists need to listen for words or phrases that are of particular significance in regards to the clients’ narratives. Speedy (2005) suggests listening for the ‘talk that sings’, that being the use of metaphors, similes, or other phrases that have depth of meaning. Speedy writes that “poetic language speaks to that which is not fixed or known and that which ‘moves or escapes’ and appears to defy the confines of conventional language” (2005, p. 285). The therapist can recognize such use of language and record it on a note pad during the session. The collected phrases can then be incorporated into reflections and summary statements, with the suggestion that they be used as lyrical content in songwriting. The therapist can then facilitate the process of having clients organize the recorded phrases in a manner that makes sense to them.

Lyrical formats can be free form, where the lines of the lyrics flow like a linear poem, or they can follow a standard song format consisting of verses, a repeating chorus, with the optional inclusion of a bridge section.


1. To help clients organize and become aware of their thoughts and beliefs.

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3. To record clients’ language in a permanent expressive form that can act as a component of assessment and measure of progress.

4. To build the relationship between the client and therapist.

5. To participate in an enjoyable co-creative experience.

Media and Roles As this is a preliminary process of songwriting, the media used and the roles are quite simple. After clients have given permission to record what they have said, the therapist simply conducts the therapy session in his or her usual manner while writing down key phrases that the clients share. Therapists may want to keep these phrases separate from any usual notes they typically record so that they can be presented in an orderly manner to clients when the work of lyric writing begins.

The therapist’s role is to listen and record the clients’ key phrases or words verbatim. The clients’ role is to organize what the therapist has recorded in a manner that makes lyrical and logical sense to them. In the co-creation of the lyrics, the therapist may suggest options in formatting the material so that it easily conforms to a musical context later on. However, Denborough (2002) cautions that therapists must keep themselves de-centered in the process of co-creating songs, so that the client and the client’s issues remain the focus of therapy.

Format The format of a session that includes this style of lyrical composition is that of a talk therapy session. The only difference between this session and a

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words that clients have said, and the use of these words to construct lyrics for a song or songs. Later in the session, or at subsequent sessions, the focus may be changed to the process of composing the music for the lyrics. At that point the therapist will want to review the options for writing music as outlined later in this guide.

Preparation Required Obtain informed consent from clients. Have adequate paper available as well as pens and pencils. The use of a flipchart is optional if it will facilitate the co-creative process.

Procedures As clients share their thoughts, feelings and beliefs in talking with the therapist, the therapist writes down some of the clients’ words verbatim. These words and phrases are reflected back to clients, and they are used as the raw materials for writing lyrics. Throughout the process of writing the lyrics and upon completion, there will be many opportunities to reflect and further explore the meaning that clients attribute to their words (Dalton & Krout, 2005). The construction of lyrics gives clients and therapists golden opportunities to gain insight and understanding, thus debriefing the process of writing and the content of the finished product is recommended.

Once the lyrics are finished, copies should be made with consent. One copy is filed, and the original is given to the client. This process of documentation assures that the song lyrics will not be lost and that the client has the opportunity

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the rough notes that were initially taken to record key phrases. It might be common to include these as session notes and treat them accordingly, or shred them. Follow your or your agencies standard procedures for notes taken in the session.

If the song has been finished, then other options exist for recording it;

however both the therapist and client need to be aware of any ethical concerns regarding audio recordings. Further information is provided in the ethics section of this guide.

Data Interpretation The lyrics that clients write are “more intimate, more succinct, and often present a distillation of meanings that surprises and heartens people, when it emanates from the therapeutic domain” (Speedy, 2005, p. 286). Interpretation of the lyrics should be a cooperative process between client and therapist so that misunderstandings are minimized. Lyrics and poetry, in fact most artistic expressions, are evaluated through subjective interpretations. That being the case, it is important that therapists do not ascribe their own meanings to the lyrics and words of their clients, but rather allow clients to define what they mean by the words they have expressed and arranged (Walker, 1995). These meanings should be the primary interpretations recorded in session notes, with any subjective interpretations made by therapists clearly identified as such.

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics

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therapist. This includes qualities of a positive working alliance (Bordin, 1979) and a warm, accepting and non-judgmental atmosphere demonstrated in the personality of the therapist and the context in which therapy occurs (Raskin & Rogers, 2000). As the expression of self and creation of expressive art forms requires that clients take some risks, a positive and supportive relationship and environment is essential in facilitating the songwriting process.

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Attributed to: Hiebert (1996), adapted by John Downes.

Salient Features Hiebert presents the techniques of thought listing and cognitive mapping as a means of informal assessment. The fact that these techniques encourage clients to brainstorm for words, group related words and issues together, and label themes, makes this technique a valuable resource for songwriting. The raw material for songwriting emerges through the brainstorming and organizing process.

Clinical Uses This technique can be used for assessment purposes as well as for tracking progress. Generally it also is an effective means of having clients contribute to the songwriting process in a non-threatening manner due to the level of participation required.

Client Prerequisites Clients must be verbal and willing to participate in this task. Informed consent should be obtained after the therapist explains the full implications of the exercise.

Therapist Skills Therapists need to facilitate the thought listing process by asking open questions that will encourage clients to write lists of related words. All client input must be received in a non-judgmental and accepting manner. The ability to ask

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is helpful.


1. To provide the raw material for the construction of song lyrics.

2. To provide useful information for pre- and post-assessment of client change and progress.

3. To document current perceptions and worldview, as well as changes in both.

4. To provide a fun yet insight-oriented exercise for clients and therapists.

Media and Roles Hiebert (1996) suggests using paper and pens/pencils and sticky notes.

Poster board, a flip chart, or a white board may also be beneficial. The role of the therapist is to explain the exercise to clients and get their informed consent to participate, ask a question that will focus clients on one issue, time the clients as they list their thoughts and words, and facilitate the overall process. The role of the clients is to provide informed consent, write down their responses to the therapist’s questions, and organize their thoughts in a manner that makes sense to them.

Format This activity is done as an exercise within the context of a music therapy or talk therapy session. It is an activity for an individual client, but may be adapted for group work if all group members can relate to the thematic question.

Preparation Required

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loose-leaf paper, sticky notes (Post-It notes – perhaps in a variety of colours), a clock or watch, and a large sheet of paper or poster board. Clients may require a comfortable writing surface.

Procedures The first step in this exercise is the formulation of a meaningful, goaldirected question. The therapist needs to prepare a few questions ahead of time.

These questions should be based on the issues that have been raised by the client either during the session or in previous sessions. Closed questions will not be useful since they can be answered with either a yes or no, or strictly factual data. Strive to make the question an open question or a declarative probe.

Examples are: “What are your values in regards to relationships”? Or “List all the qualities and associations you have with the word relationship”. It is important that the therapist and client agree on the focus of the exercise and the wording of the question.

The next step is to time clients while they free-associate and write down as many words or phrases in response to the question as possible within a twominute time period. Hiebert (1996) states that “Imposing a time limit tends to give a more accurate picture of what the client really thinks, rather than the “party line” on the topic” (p. 5). Following the generation of words, clients can transfer the words to sticky notes and then arrange them on a poster board. Those words and phrases that are closely related can be grouped together, and those that are less related can be placed further apart. As this process unfolds, patterns will

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labeled by clients as values, feelings, thoughts, images or issues. The process of cognitive mapping is designed to help clients understand their own thoughts and how they are organized. As a means of lyrical generation, cognitive mapping offers a non-threatening means of generating words and ideas that can be explored and expanded upon. The exercise itself may reveal poetic use of words and metaphors, or the discussion of the exercise may reveal the same.

After the exercise and during the discussion, the therapist may follow the procedures of Listening for the Lyrical in this guide, and work toward constructing lyrics from the material generated through the thought listing and cognitive mapping. The therapist can facilitate the process of lyric writing, but must be respectful of clients’ interpretations of their own thoughts and the way they choose to organize them in a lyrical structure.

See the procedures section of Listening for the Lyrical in this guide for more instructions in regards to writing lyrics, copying the material and recording it.

Data Interpretation As a creative means of generating germinal thoughts and phrases for lyrical creation, the data produced by this exercise is manipulated and ascribed meaning by the clients themselves. However, Hiebert (1996) notes that the cognitive map can be a useful tool in assessment since it visually represents a record of clients’ thoughts and the organization of these thoughts, at a point in time. At different points in the therapeutic process or prior to termination of

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provide an indication of progress that has been obtained as a result of therapy.

One needs to continue to empower clients during this evaluation process as well by having them interpret their own data. Any conclusions drawn by the therapist should be recorded in tentative language unless confirmation has been received from clients.

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics A therapeutic relationship needs to be established prior to beginning this exercise. Therapists may want to assure clients that there are no right or wrong answers in this activity. In addition, the reason for timing the thought listing part of this exercise should be explained so that clients do not experience stress. The therapist must remember to facilitate the process, but refrain from giving input that might impose his or her own personality and perspectives on the resulting lyrics.

Therapists may facilitate an adaptation of this exercise in a group format.

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