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Using Popular Music in Therapy
By Matthew J. Bush, MSW, LSW
Children these days lead a very difficult life. There are so many constant stressors around them. It is very important for children to find a way to express their emotions in an appropriate way.
In the past, activities such as sports have been an important stress-relieving outlet for teens, but more and more children are choosing not to participate in such activities, or are being excluded because of their “troublesome” behaviors.
It is so important for these children to develop an appropriate outlet for the release of their emotions and feelings, for if it does not happen, the results can be catastrophic.
It is for this reason that I have developed an approach that helps children utilize popular music, something many of them already listen to, as a coping skill.
How many of us look back on our childhood memories and think of the times we sat alone in our room, listening to our music. Ask teens how important their music is to them and you will quickly realize that this is something many of them spend a great deal of time doing.
Using popular music in therapy allows you to start where your client is. Long ago, I realized that children don’t like to talk to therapists. They don’t like to talk about their feelings. I realized that I would have to come up with some creative techniques if I was going to reach them.
I then looked back on my own life, and thought about the powerful connection that I had with music. I began taking a stronger interest in the current music scene. Many artists have very strong therapeutic messages being conveyed in their songs. How many of us sing along to a song without really thinking about what we are saying? I began compiling a list of songs that I felt could be valuable therapeutic resources.
I would begin my first session by asking questions about what kind of music my clients liked to listen to. I would then pick out a song from my list that I thought was about an appropriate topic for my client, and also a musical style that he or she would enjoy.
I could not believe the strength of this rapport building technique! My clients were impressed that I showed an interest in the songs they listened to. We would talk about who were there favorite artists. We would also talk about the messages my clients saw in the songs they heard.
From here I would help my clients to make better use of using music as a coping skill. I would encourage them to be more aware of the connection between music and our feelings. I would encourage them to use listening to music as an outlet to express their feelings.
An example of a song I would use often is Family Portrait, by the current popular artist Pink. I feel this is a good song to use for children that enjoy pop music, and are experiencing issues in their family. In “Family Portrait”, Pink talks about when people look at a picture of “her” family, everyone looks normal and happy. But she knows that this is a great misconception, for the reality is that her family is falling apart. Pink sings this song with heart-felt emotion, making references to how she wants her family to just hold together.
I have had much success with this song in therapy as it is something the children can truly relate to. Who doesn’t want to have the “perfect” family? Hearing this song helps children realize that they are not the only ones struggling with issues in the family.
This is just one example of the countless powerful therapeutic messages present in music. I encourage therapists to draw from their own music libraries, thinking about songs that they have identified with, and using them in therapy. My clients have given me many great suggestions of music to use. Music can act as a great “door opener” to your client’s issues. For example, playing a song about child abuse for my clients has often led to a discussion about their personal issues.
I hope you have as much success with this activity as I have!
-Matthew J. Bush, MSW, LSW is the author of Utilizing Music as a Coping Skill : Featuring the Music of Freudian Slip, which takes a look at how popular music can be used to engage children and adolescents in therapy. It also includes a compact disc featuring 14 tracks from Freudian Slip, the author’s “therapeutic rock band”. The booklet takes an in-depth look at how these songs can be used in therapy. Click here for ordering, sound clips, and additional information!