Dealing with Song Lyrics

Employing songs into a session is  common practice among Music Therapists.  Budding MT’s spend countless hours learning to play volumes of songs as part of their training and internships.  In turn, song lyrics are a great way to gain immediate insight into a client’s emotional landscape.   Aside from the basic goal of “emotional expression”, the client’s use of song lyrics can open up new therapeutic discussion and opportunities for the music therapist to assess, evaluate and create new interventions.   Teenagers are particularly interested in songs and song lyrics.  You may find that your teen clients bring in entire playlists of songs to soundtrack their lives, or certain events in their lives.   The qualities intrinsic in the music (for purposes of this discussion I refer you to Leonard Meyer’s “Emotion and Meaning in Music”) support the use of song lyrics and popular songs with the teen population.  What comes to mind to me today as I blog is to divide dealing with song lyrics into three categories.   This isn’t exhaustive but it is a start:

1.  Reframing – engaging the client in looking at the author’s perspective in several different ways.  After printing the lyrics, use a highlighter for client to mark meaningful lyrics for them and use these to engage in discussion.  Finding themes in the client’s highlighted materials can provide insight to help facilitate further discussion and to help the therapist move into another music therapy intervention building on that progress.   It would not be uncommon for a session to wind up revolving around one highlighted word, for example.

2. Rewriting – re-write the song’s lyrics to fit the client’s own experience.  Some client’s will prove very adept at this.  Others may need your assistance to varying degrees.   One way to assist is to treat it like the old fashioned “mad libs” and have them fill in the blanks for nouns and verbs.   You could also use syllable counts to weave together words and phrases.  Take it a step further and play the song (use your guitar, piano, or uke) for client and engage them in singing.   Be sure and find the key that best fits your client’s vocal range so that the experience is successful for them.   You can take it a step further and provide the client with an instrument (melodic or rhythmic) so that they can improvise with you in a section that you create for them to do so.   You may find that the re-writing experience opens up the door for further development of original songs and music that client creates in response to this initial experience.  This is one avenue where the music therapist can take active music making in many different directions for a client,  based on the treatment objectives and goals.

3.  Repurposing – there are many other ways to use songs with meaningful words, which brings us to the area that Unkefer  (1990) describes as “music and other arts”.   You can use the words to create a collage, sculpture, journal pages, illustration of the lyrics (have the client gather their songs into a journal and create illustrations for each page),  while the music is playing have the client write poetry or a letter or create a dance/movement piece to interpret the lyrics.   There are a million different ways to go with this method of using song lyrics and as a music therapist you may know therapists from other disciplines who particularly use these methods for their clients.

L.B. Meyer (1956). Emotion and Meaning in Music.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

R. F. Unkefer (1990).  Music therapy in the treatment of adults with mental disorders:  theoretical bases and clinical interventions.  pp. 164.  music combined with other expressive arts. Schirmer: Macmillan.


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