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The therapeutic benefits of songwriting and music production

By Sarah Lake, Research Assistant. Email: sarahlake@goalmanager.co.uk

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Music production and songwriting combine creativity and expression with structure, providing a transformative tool for use within rehabilitation. This powerful therapeutic approach fosters emotional processing, boosting social engagement and reducing psychological distress.

Songwriting has been outlined as “one of the most powerful methods in music therapy”, having its place in a “music therapists toolbox as a way of expressing and performing aspects of oneself” in pursuit of better health (Baker & Wigram, 2005).

Alongside music production, it is practiced as a therapy globally, owing to the ideal combination of freedom and structure that it employs (Davies, 2005), encouraging creativity whilst simultaneously providing the scaffolding required to feel secure (Derrington, 2005).

The benefits of this therapy are extremely well noted within literature (Beech, 2015), having been successfully used in music therapy with cancer patients (O’Callaghan, 1997), substance abusers (Dingle et al., 2008; Freed, 1987; Gardstrom et al., 2013), those living with HIV seropositivity (Cordobés, 1997), and those with severe mental illness (Grocke et al., 2009).

This article will examine the wide benefits of songwriting and music production, drawing on relevant supporting literature. 

Psychological distress 

Songwriting has been used within music therapy for decades, helping to address trauma and alleviate depression in both adults and children (Dweck, 2023). 

This is due to its power in helping people process their emotions, therefore aiding navigation through associated trauma, documented in literature for over 20 years (Crowe, 2007; Dalton & Krout, 2005; Gooding, 2008; Lindberg, 1995).

Within songwriting and music production, the individual accessing the therapy is encouraged to produce lyrics and accompanying music reflective of their general situation, or specific elements of the situation they are currently in.

This process of producing music encourages internal reflection and facilitates emotional processing, thereby enabling trauma processing which significantly impacts depression and quality of life (Silverman, 2012).

Investigations across diverse clinical and non-clinical populations (Baker et al., 2008; Gee et al., 2009) have demonstrated that producing music improves various aspects of wellbeing, including reducing mental distress and enhancing social engagement (Gee et al., 2009).

Among adults, songwriting aids in expressing thoughts and feelings, developing insight and problem-solving skills, and providing emotional, spiritual, and psychosocial support, as well as fostering social interaction.

In children, songwriting increases self-esteem, reduces anxiety, anger, and tension, and improves social interactions and coping skills (Baker & Wigram, 2005).

This demonstrates the extensive impact of songwriting and music production on emotional outcomes that commonly result following a traumatic event necessitating therapy.

BPM traditionally works with young people with an acquired brain injury (ABI), providing a range of music therapy including music production and songwriting.

Within this, young individuals are provided with an outlet to express their feelings, facilitating emotional processing to kick-start the process of dealing with the trauma that an ABI can bring. 

Wider emotional outcomes 

As well as providing quality of life through allowing for trauma processing, providing the necessary outlet to work towards alleviating depressive symptoms, songwriting presents further effects on wider emotional outcomes when used as a therapy. 

One significant benefit is the overall strengthening of emotional stability, through the pattern of self-expression, self-discovery and overcoming challenges that the process of songwriting and music production offers (Riley, 2012).

It enhances self-esteem and develops self-confidence through providing the possibility for decision making (Yoeli, 2021) and the freedom of creative choices.

This allows an individual to feel as if they have more control over their own life as the combination of increased emotional stability and encouragement in decision making encourages their internal locus to thrive, making them feel more sure of themselves following an adverse event necessitating therapy.

This process of self-discovery and gaining emotional stability contributes to increased social engagement, as individuals are encouraged with their new sureness to seek social cohesion.

Notably, this also contributes to a reduction in major violations and behavioural disturbances (Stearns-Bruner, 2017), as these are less likely to occur when the individual feels more in control of their life.

Social outcomes

When used as a therapy, songwriting and music production has been recognised as a device to improve social engagement (Gee et al., 2019).

This is through the emotional connectedness that it produces with others, through describing aspects of an individual’s situation in a way that is very personal to them, encouraging social cohesion (Yoeli, 2021).

In group contexts, where individuals with similar life events or conditions are placed together and encouraged to produce music, they are given the opportunity to share their lived experiences of any adverse outcomes and emotions that they have experienced as a result.

In a group of individuals with chronic lung disease where this therapeutic technique was employed, it was observed that they were able to “explore their being all in the same boat musically, culturally and existentially” (Yoeli, 2021). 

BPM has facilitated a similar group setting through their orchestration of Brain Bootcamp.

This brought together young people who had experienced an ABI and encouraged them to engage in the music production process as a group.

Throughout the process, they found similarities within their peer group that they may not have been able to identify before, as for many of the young people, this was their first time in a group of others who had experienced the same injury.

Individuals demonstrated an increase in prosocial behaviour and a decrease in peer problems over the experience (Lake, 2024), demonstrating the positive effects of music production as an intervention. 

Worldview and perspective outcomes 

Songs provide us from an early age with an “early experience of how to symbolically represent the world and how we can use metaphors to understand what is happening to us” (Presley, 2010).

Therefore, when used in a therapeutic context, songwriting can help us process the world and detail how it is currently represented to us (Baker & Wigram, 2005).

Through music production and songwriting, individuals are encouraged to reflect on experiences, transforming their worldviews to “restory their lives” (Madsen, 2019).

This process provides the unique opportunity to directly convey what life with an ABI or other injury or illness “looks, sounds and feels like” (Yoeli, 2021).

This was described by Wilton (2017) as “cathartic and instructive” as such individuals “may discover affirming ways to relate to and live with symptoms”.

This is because the text and construction of music and song provides a picture of how one symbolically represents the world and what is happening to them within it (Ruud, 2008).

In this, songwriting helps people to make sense of and engage with life experiences (Presley, 2010). 

Through processing the world, they can produce a piece of work that conveys their world view and their thoughts and feelings.

They gain insight into their own brain, externalising things that would be difficult in regular talk therapy through the implicit clarification of thoughts and feelings (Baker et al., 2008).

Further distinguishing from talk therapy, songwriting provides a product, demonstrating the individual’s worldview and their emotions in that point in time.

This serves as an extremely helpful tool not only for the individual but also for those around them, providing insight into their thoughts and feelings in a way that traditional therapy environments cannot.

As described by Baker and Wigram (2015), music created within this therapeutic context can be interpreted “in terms of process and product”.

The output in itself is a document of the therapeutic journey and an artefact of that individual in that point in time.

This provides a piece of work that an individual can revisit, share and discuss, therefore encouraging emotional and therapeutic discussion within itself. 

Conclusion

Through this literature, we are provided a picture of the transformative nature of this form of music therapy.

The art of music production and songwriting, through its process and product is extremely powerful for emotional processing, social stability and insight into one’s own situation.

BPM offers music production and lyric writing sessions and courses, specifically designed through a rehabilitative lens.

To check those out, please use this link: https://www.bpm.rehab/our-services 

References

Baker, F. & Wigram, T. (2005). Songwriting: Methods, Techniques and Clinical Applications. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xFUbbWbNatUC&pg=PA3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=1#v=onepage&q&f=false 

Baker, F., Wigram, T., Stott, D., & McFerran, K. (2008). Therapeutic songwriting in music therapy: Part 1. Who are the therapists, who are the clients, and why is songwriting used?. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 17(2), pp. 105–123.

Beech, H. F. (2015). Songwriting and transformation: The subjective experience of sharing self through song. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 34 (1). https://doi.org/10.24972/ijts.2015.34.1-2.187

Cordobés, T. K. (1997). Group songwriting as a method for developing group cohesion for HIV-seropositive adult patients with depression. Journal of Music Therapy, 34(1), 46–67. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/34.1.46

Crowe, B. J. (2007). Music therapy for adolescents with emotional/behavioral disturbances. In B. J. Crowe & C. Colwell (Eds.), Music therapy for children, adolescents, and adults with mental disorders: Using music to maximize mental health, pp. 224-230

Dalton, T. & Krout, R. (2005). Development of the grief process scale through music therapy songwriting with bereaved adolescents. Arts in Psychotherapy, 32(2), pp. 131-143

Davies, E. (2005). You ask me why I’m singing: Song-creating with children at a child and family psychiatric unit. In F. Baker & T. Wigram (Eds.), Songwriting: Methods, techniques and clinical applications for music therapy clinicians, educators and students (pp. 45-67). https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xFUbbWbNatUC&pg=PA3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Derrington, P. (2005). Teenagers and songwriting: Supporting students in a mainstream secondary school. In F. Baker & T. Wigram (Eds.), Songwriting: Methods, techniques and clinical applications for music therapy clinicians, educators and students (pp. 97- 115). https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xFUbbWbNatUC&pg=PA3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Dingle, G. A., Gleadhill, L., & Baker, F. A. (2008). Can music therapy engage patients in group cognitive behaviour therapy for substance abuse treatment? Drug and Alcohol Review, 27(2), 190–196. https://doi.org/10.1080/09595230701829371

Dweck, J. (2023). Children as songwriters: The social-emotional benefits of songwriting in the elementary grades. Research Studies in Music Education, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/1321103X231189387

Freed, B. S. (1987). Songwriting with the chemically dependent. Music Therapy Perspectives, 4, 13–18. https://doi:10.1093/mtp/4.1.13

Gardstrom, S. C., Carlini, M., Josefczyk, J., & Love, A. (2013). Women with addictions: Music therapy clinical postures and interventions. Music Therapy Perspectives, 31(2), 95–104. https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/31.2.95

Gee, K. A., Hawes, V. & Cox, A. (2019). Blue Notes: Using Songwriting to Improve Student Mental Health and Wellbeing. A Pilot Randomised Controlled Trial. Frontiers in Psychology 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00423

Gooding, L. (2008). Finding your inner voice through song: Reaching adolescents with techniques common to poetry therapy and music therapy. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 21(4), pp. 219-229. https://doi.org/10.1080/08893670802529209

Grocke, D., Bloch, S., & Castle, D. (2009). The effect of group music therapy on quality of life for participants living with a severe and enduring mental illness. Journal of Music Therapy, 46(2), 90– 104.  https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/46.2.90

Lake, S (2024). Social harmony: Exploring the influence of DJ rehabilitation on social connectivity. NR Times. https://nrtimes.co.uk/social-harmony-exploring-the-influence-of-dj-rehabilitation-on-social-connectivity-bpm24/ 

Lindberg, K. (1995). Songs of healing: Songwriting with an abused adolescent. Music Therapy, 13(1), pp. 93-108

Madsen, W. (2019). Transforming Personal Narratives: An Evaluation of a Songwriting Workshop for Rural Women. Journal of Transformative Education0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/1541344619866547

O’Callaghan, C. C. (1997). Therapeutic opportunities associated with music when using songwriting in palliative care. Music Therapy Perspectives, 15(1), 32–38. https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/15.1.32

Presley, Z. K. (2010). Songwriting the soul: A phenomenological study of the creative process of songwriting. Pacifica Graduate InstituteProQuest Dissertations & Theses. https://doi.org/1478789

Riley, P. E. (2012) Exploration of Student Development through Songwriting. Visions of Research in Music Education 22(6). https://digitalcommons.lib.uconn.edu/vrme/vol22/iss1/6

Ruud, E. (2008). Music in Therapy: Increasing Possibilities for Action. Music and Arts in Action 1

Silverman, M. J. (2012). Effects of group songwriting on depression and quality of life in acute psychiatric inpatients: A randomized three group effectiveness study. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 22(2), 131–148. https://doi.org/10.1080/08098131.2012.709268

Stearns-Bruner, G. (2017). Impact of Songwriting on Behavior of Adolescents With Suicidal Ideation in a Residential Psychiatric Setting: An Exploratory Study. https://scholars.smwc.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/5d58cca2-39da-4e06-8b05-d69a7683bed2/content 

Wilton, J. (2017). Visualising the ephemeral: Breath in visual art. Lecture delivered at Durham University. http://scholar.google.com/scholar_lookup?title=Visualising+the+ephemeral%3A+Breath+in+visual+art&author=Jayne+Wilton&journal=lecture+delivered&publication_year=2017&

Yoeli, H., Durant, S., McLusky, S. & Macnaughton, J. (2021). ‘We’re all in the same boat’: How participatory songwriting might enhance Singing for Breathing’s psychosocial benefits. Journal of Applied Arts & Health 12(2), pp. 125-144. https://doi.org/10.1386/jaah_00060_1

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