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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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original song to share in the next session. Listening to the song begins the process of talking about what clients would like to add to the lyrics so they are a more personal reflection of their thoughts and feelings. Therapists facilitate the brainstorming process, but they must be sure that clients suggest the words that are used for the new verses.

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performance to sing the new song. Keep in mind that many clients may not feel comfortable with performance, especially if their voice is amplified through a karaoke machine. Therapists will need to adapt to the needs of their clients and be sure to maintain the clients’ sense of safety in the session. After some rehearsal, decisions can be made about recording the song for the client.

Data Interpretation 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.

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Therapists will need to facilitate the process of lyric writing and initial song choice without impacting the activity with their own personalities and choices.

Therapists facilitate the songwriting process by giving examples and asking questions that help clients think about their thoughts and feelings that they would like to express. Therapists may need to give some guidance in regards to the length of lines that can be accommodated by the structure of the pre-existing song. The goal is to empower clients and give them as much control as possible.

When adapting this activity for group sessions, therapists need to facilitate the process of consensus. They also need to establish a process in which each member of the group has equal opportunities to contribute to the songwriting process.

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Attributed to: Suggested in Ficken (1976), Glassman (1991), and Roberts (2006), however this is a common technique used for entertainment purposes. It can be used as a step toward independent songwriting.

Salient Features When writing parodies of existing songs, the metrical rhythm and melody of the song act as a structure in which to substitute new words. The results can be anything from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Clinical Uses This fast track to songwriting may allow clients to obtain songwriting results quickly. The process is made easier by working with something familiar yet adaptable. This songwriting procedure can be used to explore clients’ thought and feelings, thus acting as a tool of therapeutic exploration, or it can be a fun activity that helps break the ice and build relationships.

Client Prerequisites Clients will need to understand the point of the activity as well as any boundaries in regards to content. The needs will vary depending on the developmental level of the participants. Youngsters often need some guidelines as to what is appropriate for inclusion in a parody song, be it funny or serious in nature.

Therapist Skills Therapists will need to explain the purpose of the activity clearly, and possibly set defined limits and boundaries in regards to what can be included in

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useful, as this will guide how the words are adapted and fit into the existing music. An ability to perform or facilitate the performance of the parody song is required. The therapist should be familiar with the music of the original song in the form of sheet music, midi file, or karaoke recording.


1. Increasing the comfort level, skills and abilities needed for songwriting.

2. Participation in an enjoyable creative experience.

3. Increasing client/therapist or group rapport.

4. Providing an opportunity for insight and a focus for further discussion and creative work.

Media and Roles The media used may include a CD/Mp3 player or tape deck used to listen to the original song. Instruments, a computer, or a karaoke machine may be used to provide accompaniment for the parody song.

Therapists may need to facilitate the parody process by providing examples (e.g., Weird Al is a master of parody, or use a self-written example).

Certain client populations will need to have appropriate boundaries set for them in terms of content. Clients should provide the content of the parody song lyrics.

Format This activity can take place in an individual or group session. When doing this activity in a group, therapists must be aware of the group dynamics and

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system in place that ensures equitable participation may be helpful.

Preparation Required Different preparation will take place depending on how this activity is implemented. A song sheet with the original lyrics will be needed, as will whatever accompaniment method is chosen. Groups may need to use white boards or a flip chart so that everyone can see the words. The group could also be asked to write individual verses, in which case each group member will need paper and a pen/pencil.

Procedures One way to write a parody song is to take a song that is known by clients and remove the significant words from the lyrics. Each word that is removed is identified by its part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) and the number of syllables it has. Without showing the clients the song sheet with the missing words, the therapist asks for replacement words, such as a three-syllable verb (e.g., quantify). Working through the song in this way can be an arduous task as clients try to think of words that have the correct number of syllables. Giving clients a reference sheet with lists of words that are categorized according to their part of speech is very helpful. Once the song is done it can be performed by the therapist, to the amusement and delight of the clients. This form of parody song is quite silly and almost guaranteed a laugh!

A more serious and client inclusive manner of writing a parody song is to take a song that clients know and write new verses and a chorus. Although Weird

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title to Mad gives clients an opportunity to write about everything that makes them feel angry. Therapists should choose songs that are familiar to their client population. Clients can offer suggestions, but if they do, the therapist may need to take some time to prepare prior to beginning the parody task.

Data Interpretation As with other songwriting activities, the responsibility for the interpretation of client input should be given to clients first so as to limit any misinterpretation.

The song parody, if done for the silly fun of it, may yield little in the way of data in relation to the lyrical content. However, therapists may want to take note of the data available through the observation of the process of writing. The process may reveal much in regards to how individuals or group members respond to the dynamics of the songwriting experience. What kind of content do they provide?

How is the content indicative of their thoughts, feelings and cognitive abilities?

How does their participation reflect on the roles they take in the group? Tracking such information may be useful in measuring progress in therapy.

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics Therapists need to be aware that writing parody songs can be problematic if appropriate boundaries are not set at the beginning of the process. For some client populations this may mean setting restrictions on the topic of the parody and the use of appropriate language. A balance needs to be achieved between having fun and keeping things in control.

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Attributed to: John Downes based on an idea presented by Eyre (2003).

Salient Features This technique of songwriting begins with using visual art as a means of expression. It recognizes that many clients may express themselves more freely through visual art than through words.

Clinical Uses This technique can be used with any client who is drawn to the mediums of expressive visual art.

Client Prerequisites Clients may require an interest in using visual art materials in the therapy session, along with the fine motor control necessary for using art materials.

Adaptations can be made for those with limited use of their hands. For example, clients could construct a collage by choosing pictures from magazines and giving the therapist directions on where to place the pictures.

Therapist Skills The therapist needs to be comfortable in facilitating visual art projects and using the artwork as a focus for discussion and songwriting. Therapists need to be sensitive to what they say about clients’ artwork. Judgmental statements should be avoided (even positive ones like “That’s good”). Preference should be given to questions of inquiry and declarative probes (e.g., “Tell me about your painting”).


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2. Using art as a non-threatening form of self-expression.

3. Using artwork to facilitate the identification of themes and issues in a client’s life.

4. Using artwork as a focus of discussion and client narrative.

5. Using artwork as a step toward the process of writing song lyrics.

6. Using art as a means to build rapport between the client and therapist.

Media and Roles The art materials that are used can be adapted to suit the client’s needs and the limits of the environment. Some options include: sketching with pencil and paper, using crayons, pastels or paint, creating a collage, working with clay or play dough, creating a sand tray or a diorama.

The role of the therapist is to provide the materials as well as the focus for the creative artwork. Therapists may introduce the art by allowing clients to express themselves freely, trusting that a theme will emerge through the process.

Therapists may also want to offer some direction by giving a suggestion such as to draw a favorite memory of being with a parent who has recently died.

The role of the client is to simply create in the chosen medium, given the instructions that have been received. After the artwork is finished, clients may be able to supply a narrative that explains the artwork, or even the process of making it. The debriefing of the creative process and the resulting work will provide material for later songwriting activities.

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Creation of artwork may take place in individual counselling or in a group.

The therapist will need to decide if the debriefing process will be more productive in individual or group counselling sessions. Individual sessions allow much greater freedom of expression without the time constraints that are typically experienced when sharing with a group of people who also want to debrief their experience.

Preparation Required Whatever art materials will be used in the session need to be prepared in advance. Therapists may also need to prepare a rationale and introduction to using visual art as a means of creative self-expression. Many people believe that they cannot draw, and this consideration and how to cope with this argument needs to be handled with care and sensitivity. Therapists should also be prepared to make their own artwork, especially in individual sessions. Having therapists participate and be involved in their own artwork will take away the pressure of being observed for clients. In group settings this is less of an issue.

Procedures Therapists need to choose the medium for visual art expression, gather all the needed materials and prepare the workspace as necessary. Clients may give some indication of their preferred medium, so therapists should solicit this information a week in advance. The therapist should decide ahead of time whether the session has a particular focus or not. If there is a focus, then the therapist instructs clients in regards to the theme of the artwork, or the question it

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they should be given prior to the materials being presented.

After the artwork is finished, words are collected for the songwriting process during the debriefing period. This can begin when the client responds to the probe “Tell me about your artwork”. It may be helpful to take notes of the client’s narrative explanations; therefore, therapist should have permission to write down the client’s responses.

Once the words have been gathered, the client and therapist can begin a co-creative process of arranging them into a lyrical format. Options for writing the music include using a pre-existing song and changing the lyrics, or going through the process of writing an original song. Techniques for writing music are presented later in this guide.

Data Interpretation The interpretation of the artwork as data comes directly from clients as they explain the content of their art and the process of making it. The therapist can facilitate this process by using open questions and declarative probes.

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics A non-judgmental acceptance of client’s artwork is essential for maintaining the working alliance and the clients’ feelings of safety. When working with groups, the therapist must set a standard for all group members, and remind group members of accepting each other’s efforts with enthusiasm and care.

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Attributed to: Unknown, but a former music therapy intern first introduced me to this method of poetry writing she termed “Atomic poetry”. I have expanded on this idea as a means of creating song lyrics.

Salient Features Often it is difficult for clients to think of words to express their thoughts and feelings. However, when given the words to use, wonderful and meaningful poetry can result. Therapists can lead clients in their therapy by providing a specifically chosen group of words that may center on a particular theme and feeling words, or the words can be generated by chance by flipping through a dictionary. “A song may be considered a poem set to music” (Mayers, 1995, p.

495). Writing poetry can be a first step in the process of composing a song.

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