A lovely copy of the journal “Music Therapy Perspectives” came in the mail the other day, and I thought I would share one of the published research articles that I found particularly fascinating. I am continually amazed with this career and all of the different individuals we can serve through the power of music; children who experienced trauma and the intervention used were a population and a technique I had never even considered in our practice!
The article was entitled “I Will Follow You: The Combined Use of Songwriting and Art to Promote Healing in a Child Who Has Been Traumatized” and it was a study done on a five year old girl named Leah, who had experienced sexual and physical abuse from her step-mother. Her grandparents adopted her and decided to take her to music therapy in order to facilitate appropriate healing and resilience mechanisms.
After the initial assessment, it was apparent that Leah was having trouble expressing her innermost emotions verbally, and therefore could not fully accept them and move forward. These compiling emotions and traumatic memories were causing disruptive behavior, including violent outbursts of anger. Music and creative arts are an extremely effective way for someone to express themselves, and it became apparent that this would have to be the avenue that Leah could potentially achieve inner peace through. The therapist devised a plan where they would create a picture book of each of the emotions Leah wanted to address (happy, sad, angry, and safe). In the sessions, Leah drew pictures for each of the emotions, and the therapist would then compose a song with lyrics to go with the artwork. She would play the songs for Leah, validating the emotions that she was experiencing through the songs she had composed for her. When the product was finished, Leah would have a book of all of her drawings with the lyrics of the songs written on the page, and a CD of the songs the therapist recorded. This would provide her with a concrete, physical object to empower her, remind her how to express her emotions in a positive way, and encourage her to be resilient. Although the final storybook worked wonders for this purpose, the therapeutic effects manifested in the process of creating the book (of course).
Why does music therapy work in this setting?
- Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is an extremely popular way to assist those overcoming emotional trauma. However, with children who have been abused, the ability to link feelings and words does not come automatically. These children rely on relationships to build connections between separate neural networks dedicated to affect and language in their minds, and many times, they are lacking people in their life that they can trust and build these types of relationships with. It is thus difficult to verbally discuss what has happened to them and how it makes them feel. Music therefore provides a kind of sensitivity, a nonjudgmental environment, and a power to express emotion beyond what words can convey.
- Techniques such as song-writing allows the patient to feel accepted and heard by the therapist, because their innermost feelings are being listened to, written down in their honor, and transformed into music.
- The client is able to then feel like they have a sense of control in the environment; this is SUPER important with children who have been abused! Their whole lives, they have not had control over the environment they were placed in, and horrible things would happen to them that they could not regulate. Therefore, providing them with a safe space where they call all the shots is therapeutic in and of itself.
- On top of that, the patient can feel a sense of achievement and empowerment in the creation of something like a storybook, or a CD, or even a simple song that they can sing or perform. This concrete item then stands as a reminder for them day in and day out when they are thinking about their behavior.
As someone aspiring to be a music therapist that is capable of transforming the experiences of others into a powerful piece of music, I found it inspiring how the therapist conducting the study specifically composed some of the songs to match Leah’s emotions. She did not focus on the obvious aspects of the situation.. (“I feel sad because of what you did to me”) But instead focused on the minute emotions that Leah could have been feeling as a result of the abuse.
One of the songs entitled “What Would You Do?” was written to illustrate Leah’s feelings of confusion in handling a situation like this as a five year old, as well as how she processes and handles physical touch from this point on in her life… a very legitimate complex that not everyone would think about in regard to a child experiencing abuse. The lyrics are below:
What would you do? If it happened to you? If you knew the truth? Tell me, what would you do?
Sometimes a hug can feel constricting, like a snake wrapped around my arms – and I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. But then there are days I need the safety, of your nose breathing next to mine- I can’t decide, I can’t decide.
I thought these lyrics were incredibly powerful, and able to express the innermost emotions that Leah probably did not consciously realize she was experiencing, until the therapist brought them up through music. This gives the child the opportunity to express and accept the emotions, recognize the presence they carry in their life, and then make strides to conquer the way they affect their life.
I think this aspect of music therapy is really incredible; our entire goal as therapists is to maximize the potential of our client, so that when they leave our office, they are able to lead productive and successful lives with the coping mechanisms we have supplied for them. Lyric composition and analysis are therefore extremely effective ways to expose the patient to their emotions, and leave them with something concrete that they are able to use as a tool to confront them in the future.
Hopefully this experiment was just as fascinating to you as it was to me! Thank you for listening to me soapbox about this once again. ❤
*If you would like to contribute to my educational fund, you can read my story and donate at https://www.gofundme.com/hannahlentztuitionfund. Anything is appreciated!