Music Therapy and Songwriting

Music therapy, like other creative arts therapies involving art, poetry and movement, can aid expression and management of emotions and contribute to healing. Songwriting is a pleasurable vehicle of expression and catharsis as old as music itself. It can be used by the skilled music therapist with all types of clients, even those with little musical background.

Music therapists have found ways to combine the basic elements of music, (pitch, rhythm, and melody), with simple structured ways of writing song lyrics. They are then able to give even musically inexperienced clients the opportunity to make creative choices to put their thoughts and moods into songs.   This is part of why music therapy is so incredibly effective.

Let’s start with lyrics for songwriting. Just creating song lyrics from scratch can be a daunting task, but by structuring choices, or mimicking other songs, the task can be simplified.

“Fill in the Blanks Blues” is an example of simplified songwriting that is commonly used in music therapy. The music therapist plays a simple 12-bar blues song and points out the repeating structure. Then a handout with blank spaces for some of the lyrics is used.

The first line: “If there’s one thing I like, it’s got to be…“, is filled in by the client, and then, as in standard 12-bar blues format, it is repeated. The third line follows: “I’d rather … than… any day!” Presto, a complete verse is born, which focuses on what the client’s likes. The verse can be edited by the client, and the instructions are to express feelings strongly and in as few words as possible. A second verse uses the same format to deal with dislikes or painful experiences:  “Now if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s got to be…” Another variation or verse can be added about hopes and dreams, depending on the focus of the music therapy session. 

The music therapist can then accompany the client in presenting their song to a group and singing or just reciting the lyrics. Another variation of this music therapy method is to record the song. The song can then be used for discussion as a means of emotional management.

Another way to use lyrics is to find songs that address issues the client is grappling with and delete words for clients to fill in from their own experiences and emotions to make the words more their own. The songs can be chosen to match the interests and musical preferences of clients.

Another lyric technique is using a simple poem structure to create a short piece on a subject the client feels strongly about. Cinquan poems are one example of this. This is an 11 word format including a description of a subject, action words about the subject, and the writer’s feelings about the subject.  Once finished, it can be embellished to give it more meaning.

Once the lyrics are written, the musical elements of songwriting can be composed.  Hand drums or rhythm instruments can be used to accompany or even just to emphasize emotive pars of the lyrics. Using tone blocks or xylophone notes that use simple scales, such as pentatonic scales, a client can choose notes for their lyrics which are guaranteed to sound good.  

Music therapy clients can then play their song and be accompanied by the music therapist if desired. It can be a great confidence booster for a person who has never written a song to write and perform their song to a group.

Songwriting can be taken farther with those who have more aspirations and lyrical or musical talent. But the ancient and modern art of songwriting can be made available to all levels and ages of clients through the skills and tools of the music therapist.

Music is at the center of emotional life for many people.  The expressive and cathartic action of putting strong feelings into a song can help anyone to get what is inside to the outside in a positive and enjoyable manner, even the blues.   This is why music therapy has such a profound impact.

For more information about music therapy and how it can help you, get a copy of the book Still a Minstrel.



"Readers will enjoy the struggles of a garage band to the bandstand with local and world-renowned legends. Suess guides us through those years as the music changed us and we reflected those changes in our music"

- Doug Spartz, Founder,
Minnesota Rock/Country Hall of Fame


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