Songwriting through storytelling.
Do you find songwriting scary?
Why do you think that is?
Perhaps, thinking about it as a form of storytelling may help.
Everyone has a story.
Some are amazing stories that will live on for generations. Some are funny, some are short, some are unfinished. Some are terrible… and that’s okay too. Every story, every lived or dreamed experience, is a capsule in time -- a marker along the line of your life that teaches you a lesson about yourself or the world around you.
So, when you think about it that way, hopefully some of the pressure to have a perfect product is taken away.
Some stories - like life - are messy.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think the messy parts of our lives hold the potential to be the best stories.
As music therapists, we are constantly listening to the stories of our clients and using information about their personality and circumstance to support and/or inspire positive change. Why not elevate this experience through the process of songwriting?
These stories don’t have to be complex or grandiose.
Sometimes, we write songs to serve a functional purpose.
For example, when I’m working with children, I create songs that reinforce learning goals or social concepts. I think that the majority of music therapists find this form of songwriting as the more accessible option. It’s definitely very straightforward.
You need a song that teaches a child their colours? You find or write a song that teaches children about colours!
You need a song that focuses on a certain vowel or consonant sound? You find or write a song that focuses on those sounds!
You need a song that focuses on emotion regulation? You find or write a song that introduces the concept of emotion regulation!
Well, as we get older, the things we need therapy for begin to hold space for more mature concepts such as emotional processing, self-awareness, reminiscence, executive functioning, task completion, etc. This is when many music therapists tend to shy away from using songwriting as a tool.
I’ve heard two main reasons for why this is:
- “It’s too much pressure. I don’t know how to write a song that’s good enough. The song we write may not compare to the songs on the radio or live up to the vision my client has in mind.”
- “It’s time consuming. Writing a song from scratch with a client takes a lot of time and energy. And what if it never gets finished? That may give my client even more anxiety.”
Number one, those are OUR insecurities talking. Therapy is meant to be a space of exploration and vulnerability and songwriting is as vulnerable a process as it gets.
Number two, songwriting is a muscle that needs to be worked and flexed. You just need to go for it. When you're prepping for sessions, carving out time to plan interventions and learn new material - I challenge you to also carve out time to flex your songwriting muscles.
Here are a few exercises you can do:
- Fill-in-the-blank. Look for a pre-existing song with a melody and concept that you like. Take out any of the words or phrases that may not be relevant to the story you want to tell and replace them with your own words.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes. Go through the first page of the songwriting template I have created here. This is just to get the songwriting juices flowing. See how much you can accomplish in 10 minutes. Repeat this as many times as you need, with different themes/concepts.
- Use a familiar melody. Half the battle is already won. You know the tune. All you have to do is add the lyrics. Brainstorm your theme and concept (using the first page of the songwriting template), write a story or group of thoughts relating to that concept and then sing them to a pre-existing tune.
- Set a timer for 30-45 minutes. Go through the entire songwriting process using the template I have created here. Do this as many times as you need, with different themes/concepts. Eventually, you will feel less burdened by the idea of songwriting and feel more confident to take this skill into sessions with you.
You already have all the tools you need to be a successful songwriter through storytelling. Whether you are telling your own stories or supporting the expression of someone else’s story, you are capable of creating something meaningful and magical!
Remember, you may stumble across some rotten pumpkins. You may feel like the magic is gone and you’ve lost your footing, but in the end, the glass slipper will always find its way back to you. So, pick up your wand and get to turning pumpkins into golden carriages!