Songwriters, composers and poets don’t shy away from topics that can make us very uncomfortable as listeners and music consumers. These songs serve a very good purpose as they meet us where we are at emotionally, even if we happen to be in a darker place. This kind of music can be like a friend who sits with you on the couch, holds your hand and gives you a tissue. It doesn’t try to make you happy.
In music therapy there is an approach called the iso principle. Basically, the therapist presents live music that matches the biorhythms of the client. The session may change tempos as it progresses, but it starts at a common baseline. Likewise, emotive music, either live or pre-recorded, can match the person’s feelings and help him or her recognize emotions that are below the surface. Then gradually the music selection can move in a different direction, either up or down. If someone is not comfortable at first with the darker thoughts, then the deeper music is not introduced. When they are ready they are then presented with the uncomfortable topic.
In my experiences with adapting iso principle music for mental health, it doesn’t always work, I admit. Sometimes it surprises me how well it works. In one group, the clients wanted to listen to Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” The lyrics could lead to positive interpretation on the use of cocaine. I was a bit concerned. Did I want to foster the wrong attitude? The clients said that the lyrics are honest. Cocaine does feel good for the moment, and the addict wants to escape. That is why the addiction is difficult to beat. The song selections moved to Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which revealed the down side of addiction.
After years in extended care, long term care, dementia and hospice, I just recently returned to mental health (where I started some 28 years ago). Though I am reengaging in mental health group work, it is different, as the cohort group is younger than I am. But similar to the groups of years ago, several of these clients struggle with depression, emotional trauma, suicidal ideations and addictions to drugs and/or alcohol.
Lyric analysis is one technique in music therapy. Before listening to the song, clients are given a printed copy of the song’s words. They can write notes on the page or simply read it. I can start the discussion with questions, but often it is unnecessary as the words organically propel the discussion. Eventually, the song is played so the clients can hear how the music provides the words with emotional context.
A few weeks ago, one group participated in lyric analysis of songs that, simply put, were not pretty. I used the song, “Hurt,” written by Trent Reznor of the group Nine Inch Nails.* Here is a sample of the lyrics:
I hurt myself today to see if I still feel
I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole, the old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away, but I remember everything © 1994
Individuals in the group shared experiences of sadness, hurt, pain and regret. In the past, they would try to numb themselves in several ways, yet the pain was not lessened and sometimes became worse. When the song was played we heard the dynamics building and rhythm pulsing. The music facilitated the words to fully express sadness and regret. A few participants had heard the song before and readily identified with it. At the end of the activity several participants felt a common bond with each other and with the writer/performer of the song.
William Cowper (1731-1800) was an English poet and hymnologist who suffered for years with deep depression. He expressed this in his hymns as he sought refuge in spiritual reflection, also exemplified in his poem, “Light Shining Out of Darkness.” We know, in our own experiences, suffering is common among us all, albeit, in differing degrees. We also know this through the music that expresses sadness, intimate and grand. It helps us identify both emotionally and intellectually with humanity.
Facilitated by a professional music therapist, music analysis can help clients with mental health issues better understand themselves. In the worldwide community, persons in social groups or on social networks can share both light and dark songs with each other. “Hey, listen to this song; it’s how I’m feeling right now.” Shared experiences with powerful music fortify our relationships with each other.
*There are other contemporary songs that lend themselves well to lyric analysis. Some of them help move feelings from darkness to light. For example, I just received song suggestions from a music therapist in Florida and look forward to their use: “A Change is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke), “My Next 30 Years” (Tim McGraw), “Bump in the Road” (Jonny Lang) and “No Worries” (Simon Webbe).
Virginia Dougherty, MT-BC, is a Creative Arts Therapist working at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. The opinions written are her own and are not the official position of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, nor of the Department of Veterans Affairs.