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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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Such an adaptation would require clear instructions on how group members will contribute to the thought listing activity. Group-based variations may ask participants to verbally give words or phrases in turns, or all group members could write their responses as if they were participating as individuals. They could contribute to the group songwriting process by sharing selected words and phrases from their lists. The therapist could then facilitate the process of creating the map and organizing ideas along with the group.

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Attributed to: Unknown origin labeled as cloze procedure by Curtis (2000), Freed (1987) and Walker (1995). Used by Ficken (1976) as the first step of approximation toward songwriting.

Salient Features This form of lyric writing begins with a set structure of lead-in words that represent an incomplete idea that can be completed by clients. The advantages of having a structure are that music can be pre-composed to accommodate the input of the words, and the therapist can guide clients toward specific areas of expression that are oriented to the goals of therapy. Goldstein (1990) uses a 12bar blues format of music along with simple lead-in lines that focus clients on the expression of feelings. The lines of her blues song are: “For some reason I’m feeling _________________. I think tomorrow I’ll feel _______________” (repeat) (Goldstein, 1990, p. 122). Two concluding lines are then left to clients to fill in according to the structure of the next five bars of music. For further explanation of Blues format, see Blues Songwriting later in this guide.

Clinical Uses Goldstein (1990) used this method as part of her assessment for hopelessness in depressed adolescents. She found that this method could “elicit verbal expressions of future expectations through a musical form of selfexpression” (p. 117).

In music therapy, the fill-in-the-blank method of lyrical contribution is also termed lined-out singing. It can be used to encourage verbal self-expression for

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reticent. As mentioned earlier, the technique allows therapists to guide clients, yet still allows clients the flexibility to complete the lines with content that has personal meaning. Since this is the case, the content may provide points of insight for clients and therapists as well as rich content for further therapeutic exploration.

Client Prerequisites Verbal ability will be useful, however this exercise also allows people who cannot use their voice to participate and express themselves. The lead-in lines can be presented in written form on a song sheet, and clients can simply write their responses in the blanks provided. For those clients who are non-verbal and lack writing skills, they can use pictures from magazines to express their ideas and the therapist can fill in the blanks with words, then confirm the appropriateness of the words with their clients.

Therapist Skills Therapists need to construct lead-in lines that are goal-directed and aligned with the purpose of the therapy sessions. Familiarity with common song styles and the ability to sing or play in these styles is useful. Sensitivity to the facilitation process is essential as therapists may find themselves having to guide clients and encourage them to give meaningful responses. Children may often give answers that do not make sense, or they may approach the project with a sense of silly fun. If the work of therapy is serious, therapists may desire serious responses. If this is the case, it may be beneficial to do a silly version and a

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agendas. With adults, therapists may want to encourage brainstorming for the content of each blank to be filled in, and allow clients to choose the response that they feel is most appropriate.


1. To complete a song that is an accurate reflection of clients’ thoughts and feelings.

2. To assess clients and measure their progress over time.

3. To engage clients in the process of songwriting in a non-threatening and easily approached manner.

4. To contribute to a trusting client/therapist relationship through the use of a fun activity.

Media and Roles The media required is a standard song format of some type, such as a blues song structure, a well-known melody in which the words can be adapted, or a therapist-composed song structure. Although songs can be performed acappella (without accompaniment), using a musical instrument to accompany the singing of the song is most enjoyable and helps provide some supportive structure and motivation.

The role of the therapist is to facilitate the process of writing or the sharing of verbal input by the client. In some cases, such as mentioned above, boundaries may need to be set or flexibility may need to be provided to clients.

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form of expression they are comfortable with.

Format This songwriting activity can be part of an individual or group music therapy or talk therapy session, or may be given as homework. The song structure that is used in the activity can vary, but it should be something that appeals to clients given their age and culture. Blues, rap, nursery rhymes/songs, hymns, and popular music can all provide the musical component and structure for this activity. Musical forms composed by the therapist are also appropriate.

Preparation Required A song sheet with the lead-in lines printed on it and enough space for clients to fill in the blanks is needed. A few copies should be made so that clients can complete more than one song if desired. Therapists will need to prepare the musical part of this activity in advance so that the song can be performed when it is completed.

Procedures Introduce the concept of filling in the blank in song lyrics. Therapists may want to explain that this is a fairly easy process, and give an example by singing the last line of “Happy birthday to _____”, and note how most clients will complete the phrase due to needing some sense of closure.

Explain the rationale behind the activity of fill-in-the-blank songwriting. The structure of the activity provides some focus on a topic of therapy (e.g., selfexpression, feelings, defining goals, etc.). Obtain consent to participate in the

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clients to give thoughtful and considered responses, or just say or write the first thing that comes into their minds. The goals of therapy and the style of the therapist may influence this choice.

Another choice to make is to decide if clients will fill in the blanks by writing their responses or giving verbal responses that the therapist records on the sheet. In some cases the therapist may design the activity so that responses given in a group are not written down, but are given during the performance of the song. This encourages clients to think on their feet and give unedited responses.

After the above choices and design considerations have been made, the process of completing the lyrics can begin, followed by performance of the song and discussion of the responses. The song may reveal new issues to explore with clients.

Examples – by John Downes, to original music.

Title: Hey, Hey, Hey Hey, hey, hey, there’s a guy/gal named ___________ And she’s a __________________________(word or phrase to describe self) Hey, hey, hey, and this gal named _____, is going to tell us something that’s true.

She says that she likes ___________ She says she dislikes _____________

She says she wishes for ________________________________

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Title: How Long Does This Journey Go On I'm looking for ______________________

I'm reaching _______________________

I'm learning to ______________________

I'm listening for _____________________

I'm hoping to _______________________

I'm waiting for _______________________

I'm planning ________________________

I'm running _________________________

I'm wishing _________________________

I'm chasing _________________________

I'm avoiding _________________________

I'm taking____________________________

How long does this journey go on?

How long does this journey go on?

Example: Go Tell It To (to the tune of Go Tell It On the Mountain – traditional) Go tell it to ____________________

Going to tell that _______________

Go tell it to ____________________

Because ______________________

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Therapists may be tempted to draw conclusions from the input that clients give to this exercise, but this process of exploring the meaning behind the words should be done in cooperation with clients so that the conclusions are as accurate as possible. As with most writing and communication, meaning can be subjective. The safest means of recording data is to use the clients’ words verbatim when taking session notes, and indicate when therapists are recording their own interpretations, opinions or questions regarding the content of the song lyrics.

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics Therapists will need to decide how they will implement this songwriting procedure according to the kind of relationship they have with clients, the relationship they have with a group, and the relationships the group members have with one another, as well as the developmental level of the group or individual. Such considerations will dictate whether clients write their own content on the song sheet, give verbal input, have time to consider their responses, or are asked to respond in the moment. Above all, therapists need to create a safe space for participation in this project so that it is a positive experience for clients.

This style of lyric writing is a stepping stone to less structured formats, so success in this process may lead to more advanced work later on.

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Attributed to: Ficken (1976), Freed (1987), Silber and Jozef (1995) Salient Features This style of songwriting uses a pre-existing song as the basis for writing a new verse that is a reflection of a client’s thoughts and feelings. Using songs that have meaning for clients may be beneficial in that the clients have already established a relationship to the words and music of the song. Often recordings of the song are available, and therefore they can be played in the session.

Sharing a favorite song with the therapist may be another way of building therapeutic rapport in the session.

Clinical Uses Composing additional verses to pre-existing songs allows clients to expand on the original content of the song, thus making it more personal and reflective of their own issues. These songs can be used to explore and provide a voice or container for clients’ issues, problems, and feelings, or provide messages of support and motivation for change.

The fact that the song is already written and can be adapted allows the process of songwriting to be easy and takes up less time that writing an original composition.

Client Prerequisites Clients will need to have a few favorite songs that they relate to on some level, whether it is an expression of their thoughts or feelings. Clients need to be fully verbal, but do not necessarily need to have reading or writing skills.

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Being able to perform the song that clients choose for this activity is an asset. Sheet music is often available for popular songs, and the Internet provides resources for obtaining lyrics and the chords for songs as well. For those who cannot play an instrument, midi files for many well-known songs are available on various web sites. Midi files play as synthesized sound files through a computer’s sound card and speakers. Obtaining a midi file is often as easy as doing a Google search of the song title with the word “midi” after it. For example: The Rose midi. After the song has been adapted, the therapist and client can sing the song together. Using a karaoke machine is another option, the benefits being better sounding accompaniment arrangements, and the ability to change the key to suit the singers’ voices.


1. Creative self-expression.

2. Building self-esteem.

3. Identifying issues as part of creating new song verses.

4. Participating in a meaningful and fun therapeutic activity.

5. Channeling thoughts and feelings into a concrete form that can safely hold the expression of thoughts and feelings.

Media and Roles Media for this songwriting activity may include song sheets, paper and pencils, computer hardware, Internet access, instruments, a karaoke machine and a recording of the original song’s accompaniment tracks. The role of the

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required to help clients fit their words into the chosen musical format. Clients will choose appropriate songs to bring to session and will provide the lyrical ideas for the new verses.

Format This activity can take place in an individual music therapy or talk therapy session format. It can be adapted for group work as well.

Preparation Required Give clients the homework of choosing one or two songs to bring to the next week’s session, or discuss which songs might be appropriate, choose one, and then take a week to gather the required materials. Depending on what resources are available, therapists may need a karaoke machine and the song on CD or tape, the midi file, the original lyrics, the chords for the song, possibly a transposition of the chords to better suit the key needed for the therapist’s or client’s voice, instrument on which to play the song, and paper, pens or pencils.

Procedures Introduce the songwriting activity along with a rationale for participation.

Obtain client consent. Given some understanding of clients’ issues, therapists may be able to suggest examples of songs that could have new verses (i.e., perhaps the song already has a chorus that has an appropriate theme such as “Rise Again” by the Rankin Family). Hearing an example may help clients make their own choices. Often the most appropriate choices are those songs that resonate with clients already.

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