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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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Preparation Required Therapists need to make a decision regarding the key that will be used for songwriting. If therapists have the role of singing the completed song, then they will want to use a key in which they can sing comfortably. If clients will be singing the song, then therapists need to choose a key that will suit their voices. For the purposes of this explanation, the keys of C major and A minor are used. For further explanation of diatonic triads, simply type the term into Google. There is a wealth of music theory lessons available on the Internet.

Chord choices cards can be constructed using the diatonic triads of C major and A minor. The reason that two keys are given is that therapists can offer clients an initial choice on whether they want to compose a happy or a sad sounding song. These basic emotions are typically reflected through either major or minor keys in western music. The diatonic chords and their corresponding

Roman numeral for each key are presented below:

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The other thing that needs to be prepared is a means of aurally reflecting the choices that clients make. This can be done using any instrument that can play chord sounds. Therapists will need to rehearse their ability to play the chords on their chosen instrument. In some cases, clients can play the chords themselves. Keyboards and chord-based instruments like the Autoharp and Omnichord make this task easier. Masking or colour-coding techniques that clearly isolate and identify the target chords on an instrument is helpful for both therapists and clients.

Procedures Once clients have made the initial choice of happy (major key) or sad (minor key) a starting point is identified. In the example above, a happy song will begin and end with the C chord, a sad song will begin and end on an A minor chord. To help clients construct chord progressions that make musical sense, therapists need to have some knowledge of chord progressions. Typing “common chord progressions” into an Internet search engine such as Google will result in many music theory pages that give quick lessons with examples. With this knowledge, therapists can offer clients choices that will result in pleasing chord progressions. The chord progressions may be divided into sections for a chorus and verses, or follow a different format, depending on the style of music that is preferred.

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Interpretation of the chord choices and the resulting chord progression should be left up to the client. Clients can be asked if they are pleased with the results, if they want to modify the chord progression, and how the progression makes them feel. The choice between major or minor keys may reflect basic moods with which clients identify, but such assumptions should be confirmed with clients themselves. Cultural influences may come into play in regards to interpretation of the moods expressed in music. For example, Hava Nagila is written in a minor key, but it is a song of great joy!

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics Emphasis should be placed on the clients’ creativity. They are the composers of the music, and the therapist is merely a facilitator of the process who helps clients make choices. Musical enculturation will play a large role in guiding clients with their choices. Their musical ears will tell them what makes sense. However, sometimes the choices may lead the progression into unrecognized patterns. If clients identify these as being pleasing to them, then therapists should respect their decisions.

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Attributed to: Lindberg (1995), adapted by John Downes.

Salient Features In this technique, the melody of the song is composed prior to the chord progression. Having written lyrics may help guide the composition of a melody, but it is not strictly necessary as the song may consist of a melody without lyrics, or lyrics may be added after the melody is composed. To obtain a pleasing melody, therapists may choose to limit the options available to clients so that the melody stays within the confines of a musical key signature.

Clinical Uses This technique can be used with a variety of client populations of various cognitive and physical abilities. This technique can be used whenever songwriting is a part of a client’s treatment.

Client Prerequisites Clients must be able to hear and also indicate their choices in some manner. Fine motor control might be necessary if note choices are being indicated using an instrument.

Therapist Skills Therapists need to understand how clients can make choices and facilitate this process. Therapists will need to record the choices that clients make in a form that gives some permanency to the composition (i.e., writing down the note names, scoring the melody, recording the notes on tape or keyboard, etc.).

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1. Creation of a melody as a part of a songwriting activity.

2. Empowering clients through choice-making and acceptance of their choices.

Media and Roles The role of the client is to make creative choices of notes in order to compose a melody as part of a songwriting activity. The role of the therapist is to facilitate the client’s process by making the choosing of notes a fully accessible process.

The media for this activity can vary depending on the abilities of the client.

For example, some clients may choose to sing an original melody to the therapist who plays it back on an instrument and notates the melody or records it. Other clients may use a keyboard, xylophone, or other melodic instrument to choose notes in sequence. Still other clients may use cards with the note names on them to make their choices, or even cutout notes placed on a treble clef. Whatever medium is used, therapists can reflect the choices back to clients so that they can hear them, confirm their choices, or indicate that they wish to make changes.

Format Melody writing is a time-consuming process that requires a great deal of patience. It can be made quicker if therapists limit the choices that are offered to clients. For example, only the notes of a particular key may be used for a melody, thus limiting the choices to just eight basic notes. A pentatonic scale may also simplify the process (removing the third and seventh notes of the major scale)

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the ear.

Melody writing can be done in individual or group settings. Taking turns to make choices and contributions is essential in groups so that everyone is included in the process of writing the melody.

Preparation Required What materials are needed will depend on the medium that is used to allow clients to make choices of notes for their melody. There are some suggestions in the Media and Roles section above.

Procedures Choose the medium that clients will use to make note choices. Explain to the clients that melody is made up of a sequence of notes, and within the sequence notes are often repeated and are of varying length, thus creating rhythm patterns in the melodic phrases. Explain to clients that songs typically have repeated lines of melody with slightly different endings, and sections that may be repeated as choruses and verses. Including repetition in the creation of a melody shortens the process and also conforms to standard songwriting practices.

As clients make choices to create sequences of notes, stop the process every so often and play the melody that has been created so far. Ask clients to comment on the melody and invite them to make any suggestions for changes that they may have. Record the melody in written form and on tape, or on the sequencing recorder of a computer music program or keyboard. Be sure to have

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After the melody is complete, words can be written to it, or pre-written words can be sung to the melody. Some adjustments of the melody or the lyrics may be necessary so that accents of words are placed on the right syllables and the song flows well. The next step in the songwriting process is to add accompanying chords to the melody.

If the song has been written using a pentatonic scale, then the melody is easily harmonized with notes played from the same scale. For example, playing a perfect fifth (the first and fifth notes of the scale played together) under the melody will produce a harmonious drone sound, like that of a bagpipe.

Otherwise, a melody written in a major or minor key will suggest certain diatonic triads that will accompany it. Therapists can use their ears to tell which chord choice makes harmonic sense given the notes of the melody. So if a melody is written in the key of C major, the diatonic triads from the same key will harmonize the melody. For tips on how to add accompanying chords to a melody, use the search terms “harmonizing a melody” in an Internet search engine such as Google.

Data Interpretation Therapists may draw some conclusions regarding how the process of writing and the resulting melody reflects client functioning; however, they should always discuss their observations with their clients and obtain clients’ input,

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own self-created data.

Client/Group-Therapist Dynamics The therapist’s role is that of a facilitator with some degree of knowledge.

However, this process should be approached with an attitude that there is no right or wrong way of participating. Clients decide what sounds right for them and therefore they are the experts in regards to their creation.

In facilitating group melody writing, therapists will need to encourage clients to take turns by imposing some structure on the session. Consensus building skills will be required when it comes time to review the melodic fragments for acceptance, adaptation, or re-writing.

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Attributed to: Unknown, adapted by John Downes Salient Features This technique for writing music uses a very motivating device: An electric keyboard or computer software program with one-finger chordal accompaniment patterns in a variety of styles. With the push of a few buttons, computers or keyboard instruments can sound like a complete band. This technique of songwriting allows clients to make choices in regards to musical styles and instrumentation, and often inspires the creation of melody with ease.

Clinical Uses This technique can be used with a variety of client populations. Those with limited musical skill will be particularly thrilled with their ability to make music through simple choices and limited amounts of effort or musical knowledge.

Working with such instruments or software programs can be highly motivating for some clients.

Client Prerequisites Being able to hear the music is a must, but other than that, ways can be found to adapt the use of a computer or keyboard so that just about anyone can control them independently, or make choices regarding how they are used.

Therapist Skills Therapists using any technological equipment or software should familiarize themselves with how the program or instruments work prior to using them with clients. Such knowledge allows one to utilize all the features of the

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choices. Some software programs and many keyboards can adapt to the skill level of the player. For example, keyboards may allow musicians to play the accompaniment parts with all their fingers, use block chords to control the accompaniment, or use a single finger to control the accompaniment.


1. To choose a style of music for use in composition of a song.

2. To use the style to motivate song composition.

3. To use the style to compose chord progressions and melodies with lyrics.

Media and Roles The medium for this technique is either a software program that can produce loops of synthesized or sampled sounds that can be changed according to choices of chord sequences, or an electronic keyboard that has an accompaniment feature with many styles from which to choose. The role of the therapist is to provide instructions on how to operate or make choices to control the software or keyboard. Therapists may also have to adapt either media to limit choices so that the music that is produced stays within a particular key. For example, a masking device may be used on a keyboard to cover up those keys that are not in the tonality of the song. Other limits may need to be imposed so that valuable time is applied to exploring only the capabilities of the software or keyboard that will actually be used for the client’s composition. For example, therapists can limit the genre choices to rock styles and hip-hop styles, knowing that their young clients will likely not compose in a country or ballroom dance

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choices so that the music can be replicated later on.

The role of clients is to make choices in terms of their preferred style, instrumentation, key, chord progression, tempo, and melody. Clients are responsible for creative input that is inspired by the style choices and the music produced by the software or keyboard.

Format This activity can take place in a group, but individual work would likely be easier. Working with technological equipment is usually a hands-on kind of activity in which clients want to be directly involved. Moreover, most technology of this type is designed for a single user. If a group were co-writing a song, each member would likely desire a turn to explore the technological device. Limiting the duration of turns might be a challenge.

Preparation Required Therapists will need to set up the equipment so that it can be used comfortably in the space. Often this will mean that both therapist and client will need equal access to the equipment. Therapists need to know how the program or electronic instrument works, prepare for any limitations that they impose on the session (e.g., masking the keyboard, knowing what parts of the software need not be used, etc.), and be prepared to record client’s choices so the music can be replicated.

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