Thoughts and feelings spill into the air. I begin to sing and words take flight with tone, rhythm, melody. Messages that can be expressed and contemplated, they hold meaning to the one expressing them. Simple. Honest. Profound. The music and the voice bring the lyrics to life, so that they can be heard, received, digested. Perhaps the heart can be understood a little bit better through the process of writing a song.
In my career as a music therapist, I have taken part in the creation of near a hundred songs. New songs have evolved from joy and brokenness, from pain and from celebration. They have been life-songs, love-songs, vent-songs, songs of thankfulness, songs of confession, some spontaneous and some thoughtfully planned. I have had to be ready for anything, for everything, that comes out in those sacred spaces and moments of lyrical and musical connection between client and therapist. We dive in and hold time and space for creative thought together. I get to bear witness to amazing, intimate, courageous moments as people come to terms with their own process of life and illness, and as they use artistic elements of language and melody to convey their inner world to those around them.
When working with people dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the aftermath that follows, songwriting has facilitated a number of things. It became an outlet for describing the experience of illness, for reminding oneself of identity beyond cancer, for ponderings of existential meaning, reaching out for support and to be heard, and for communicating hopes and wishes for oneself or for loved ones. Groups in wellness programs have also engaged in songwriting together to encourage one another to keep pressing on, and to remind one another that they are not alone.
Songwriting can involve substituting personal lyrics into a meaningful pre-composed song. It can also involve composing original melodies and harmonies to accompany and reflect the ‘newness’ and personal nature of the lyrics. In a guided songwriting approach, we may go through several stages including brainstorming, reframing, determining the key and style of the music, and setting the melody and accompaniment incorporating the client’s ideas and feedback in as many steps as possible (O’Brien, 2003; O’Callaghan, 1996). Depending on the therapeutic process, some have also found it helpful to start writing a song with spontaneous in-the-moment lyric improvisation.
Some music therapists would argue that lyrics are not always necessary, and I agree. Connecting and externalizing through vocal or instrumental sounds can often express the inexpressible more deeply than words can attempt to do. However, I would suggest that lyrics also help us to process our inner experience in ways that can be heard and validated by others. Songwriting can serve to immortalize our experience, our story, our messages, and our legacy, in a medium that can be shared with others for years to come.
For those who are living with and coping with cancer daily, perhaps songwriting might provide a new outlet and path for expression. Or perhaps there are certain elements of songwriting that you may feel compelled to explore over others. Documenting your own personal experiences can also take the form of poetry, letters, journaling, audio or video recording, which could reap similar benefits to songwriting in terms of self-expression and legacy work. Listen to your own process as it comes out and check-in with yourself, be mindful of whether it would be most beneficial for your heart to do this on your own, or with others. Many have found it helpful to reach out to a music therapist for support and guidance as they wade through the experience.
Remember that there are no limits to what you decide to highlight in your own self-expression. As I reflect on my own work with clients, the songwriting has followed many threads. They have chosen to lyrically describe favourite hobbies, a treadle sewing machine, childhood in Nova Scotia, words of wisdom to children and grandchildren, words of thanks to a doctor, memories of family time in meaningful places like “Minnicog”, confessions of depression and anxiety, a rap mapping out a life journey, to name a few. The list is unique and diverse. Each song tells a different story, memory, or struggle. Each song is meaning-full. I feel both honoured and humbled to companion clients on their path of discovery through songwriting. It is a truly awe-inspiring experience.
O’Brien, Emma (2003). The Nature of the Interactions Between Patient and Therapist when Writing a Song on a Bone Marrow Transplant Ward. Unpublished Master’s thesis. Melbourne: The University of Melbourne.
O’Callaghan, Claire (1996). Lyrical Themes in Songs Written by Palliative Care Patients. Journal of Music Therapy, 33 (2), 74-92.
Sara Klinck is an Accredited Music Therapist whose clinical focus is hospice palliative care and bereavement support. She is a vocalist, pianist, guitarist, and flautist, and also uses a variety of percussive instruments in her clinical work. Sara has completed both Bachelor of Music Therapy (2005) and Master of Music Therapy (2013) degrees, and is accredited with the Canadian Association for Music Therapy. Her vision and heart for working with those living with life-threatening illness have led her to initiate and develop music therapy programs at numerous hospices in southern Ontario. She has also conducted qualitative research highlighting the experience of music therapy in a bereavement group for adults.