Songs as Adjuncts to Psychotherapy

By Don R. MacMannis, Ph.D.
January 1, 2011



Psychologists often suggest self-help books and movies to clients as homework to augment the therapy process. It is evident that therapeutic change can happen as much outside as inside our offices. Now a growing body of research is pointing to the efficacy of using songs and music in a similar fashion.

Music has a unique capacity to touch our souls and elicit strong feelings. For adults, an old tune or two can trigger a walk down memory lane. It can be used for clients needing to grieve the loss of a loved one. With teens in therapy, asking about musical preferences often elicits discussions about their inner lives, hopes and dreams and can help them feel more connected to the therapist.

Music lights up over a dozen areas of our brain, including language, hearing and motor control centers. Cutting across a number of the “seven intelligences,” it helps to ground concepts in a unique and special way. It can increase the production of endorphins, help us feel energized, lift our moods and connect us with others. It can boost creativity, self-expression and immune functions.

Research has also shown that music can strengthen learning processes, particularly with vocabulary and spatial-temporal reasoning. It also facilitates long-term retention of information. Many of us remember the words and meanings of songs we haven’t heard for years. Do you still recall alphabetical sequences by remembering the ABC song?

The results of a research project just completed in Santa Barbara suggest that songs can also help children boost their social and emotional skills. Using the songs and activities of Ready to Rock Kids, 320 first- and second-grade children from sixteen classrooms were involved. The children each received a CD of the songs and in a subsequent phase of the project they were provided with 40-minute lessons over the course of nine weeks.

Topics included:

  • Friendship and reaching out
  • Respect and caring
  • Celebrating differences
  • Expressing and managing feelings
  • Conflict resolution
  • Positive thinking
  • Dealing with fears
  • Best effort
  • Manners

Significant changes occurred in the children, both under the conditions of having the CD alone and also by participating in the school lessons. First graders showed more dramatic changes than second graders, learning skills in approaching peers, using effective tools with teasing and bullying, understanding and using the Golden Rule, resolving conflicts by talking out feelings, staying on task and having a positive attitude. Both first and second graders showed marked improvements with self-confidence and “encouraging others to do their best.”

Although this research was conducted in an elementary school setting, songs and related activities can also be used to strengthen specific therapeutic goals in child or family therapy. One song, Go Away Bad Thoughts, was developed for young kids suffering from phobias, anxiety and OCD. It helps them to playfully “externalize” and become the boss of their unwanted thoughts. Albert Ellis was fond of using this song in his workshops to illustrate his theories. A form of cognitive therapy as applied to children, this song is used with nighttime fears of monsters, etc.

I often refer to classic songs like Put on a Happy Face when addressing kids’ social challenges and the importance of smiling. A new favorite among therapists, Talk It Out, creates the vision for a fun repair kit for feelings. Although applicable to working out “big feelings” between two individuals, including couples, it is helpful in reducing rivalry and conflict between siblings.

Another song can be used to address the topics of bullying and teasing. Recent statistics show that 24 percent of elementary and secondary school children are regular victims of bullying. One of the favorites in our research project, Bye, Bye Bully, empowers kids with a variety of research-based strategies to deal with teasing and bullies.

Children today are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, and what they see and hear forms new connections in their rapidly growing brains. Music has been shown to be an effective, almost magical, medium for teaching social and emotional skills – a fun way to “make the medicine go down.” Whereas adults may benefit from self-help materials and books, kids seem to do better with learning these all-important life skills through more indirect and playful methods.

I welcome input from others about songs they employ, creative uses of music in therapy and suggestions of themes for new songs.

Don R. MacMannis, Ph.D., is psychologist and co-director of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara. Also a PBS songwriter, he has written and produced Ready to Rock Kids, a series of award-winning CDs, single-song downloads and activity books. His e-mail is: Dr.Mac1@cox.net. His website is DrMacMusic.com.

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