Back to the days of ancient healers, medicine men and women the world over knew that music had an inherent healing quality. Modern science is starting to catch on. Music Therapy has been around for almost 75 years and in that time they’ve created a mountain of evidence that music changes our minds, emotions, physiology and plays a role in healing the whole person. Hopefully, in time, the rest of modern medicine will figure out what we musicians already know. It’s the reason many of us started playing music in the first place. We didn’t know the data behind it, or what it was doing to our cerebral structure, or how it was changing our bodies and body chemistry, but we knew one thing…making music makes us feel good.
In my experience, it is the act of songwriting that really cashes in on music’s therapeutic benefits, and I’d like to walk you through four simple steps to writing songs that you can use to improve your life.
1. Erase your preconceptions about what you’re doing.
This is especially difficult and especially important for musicians. We tend to censor ourselves overly much at inappropriate times and cut off the flow of ideas and emotions that are beneficial to our healing process because we’re afraid of writing something stupid. Don’t be. Writing for wellness isn’t like writing for radio. Nobody cares if you use a cliche phrase, so long as you mean it. You’re not trying to appeal to an audience or fit thematically with other material. You’re just writing for you. Change your concept of what a good song is. It’s not about whether a song IS good, it’s about whether a song DOES good.
While you’re at it, try doing the same for yourself. We tend to censor our actions at times as well, fearful that we are breaking some unspoken, preconceived social taboo by acting on authenticity and passion. Life is not about us being good, obedient clones of each other. It’s found in the dynamism of human interaction. Its meaning is found when we DO good for each other. The world needs you to be fully you. We need your passion, creativity, sensitivity, daring, compassion, intellect, fierceness, craziness…all of it. By censoring yourself you’re depriving the rest of the world of who you really are.
2. Let it flow.
Without judging or analyzing, start writing the things that come to your mind, no matter how disjointed they may seem. Images, phrases, sounds, smells, whatever comes to mind just write it down. As you do make sure that your mind knows you’ve made a record of the thought and it doesn’t need to hold onto it anymore. As you let your mind flow into your words and out onto your pages, begin to remember the poignant parts of your life. Record how you feel as well as what happened. This will all become fodder for your songwriting later.
This is a mental exercise you can practice anytime, without a pen and paper if need be. The real important part of it is learning to accept your thoughts and feelings as valid, acknowledging them, and letting them go. It’s an exercise in unburdening. Too often in today’s world we are encouraged to take on responsibilities, worries, and labors without allowing ourselves to let anything go. It’s not a sustainable way to live. Think of your mind like a backpack, and every new task or responsibility is like a stone. The heavier your pack, the more slowly you move, the more inefficient you become at carrying the stones. The only way to continue to move at a healthy pace is to maintain a healthy load by removing a stone for each new one that is added. To do this you must first learn to allow yourself to unburden your thoughts.
3. Write your truth.
I don’t mean that every song needs to read like the transcript of a confessional, but whatever you write needs to be true to your heart. You need to write about the things that move you, not the things you think people want to hear. The reality is people aren’t actually attracted to any particular topic or story in a song. They’re attracted to songs that tell the truth, sung by someone who believes in that truth with their whole being. For example, the Carrie Underwood song “Before He Cheats” is something I could never convincingly write. I’ve never been a woman scorned…it’s not my truth. I can sing the words and the notes but they’re lifeless coming from me. From her though you get all kinds of fire and frustration. She sings those words and means them. You need to find those stories that, for good or ill, make your blood boil. You’ll know you’ve got it when you write something and feel a visceral reaction. You know that feeling you get that starts in your stomach, works its way up your neck and kind of makes you choke before your face flushes and tears well up in your eyes? That’s the work of your autonomic nervous system…the oldest part of the brain that isn’t governed by reason or thought. It’s purely instinctive and emotional. If you’ve managed to create a response from that part of your brain then you’re definitely on the right path.
Telling your truth sounds simple, but it first requires you to define your truth. What has your life been up to this point? What events and people have shaped it? What good have you done in the world? What do you regret? Who do you love/hate/fear/admire? Who can you forgive? Who can’t you forgive? Where do you want to be? What’s stopping you? How do you see yourself in relation to the rest of the world? How do your politics clash/meet your morals and ethics? How can you do better? They’re big questions, but worth grappling with if you want to write the songs that will heal. Healing always comes from a place of truth.
4. Share it.
Sometimes a song isn’t finished until it’s shared. Many times, what’s true for you will be true for others also, and allowing them to feel the joy or the pain of their own moments or life aspirations is an incredible gift. You may even find that helping others heal through your music is therapeutic for you as well. Music is a medicine for the doctor and the patient. Share your song, your truth, boldly and without reservation.
There are so many benefits to making music: joy, community, the thrills of being on stage, but none of them compare to the raw power music has to heal us. Before it was used for entertainment, it was used as a salve for the mind, body and soul of men and women from every place and time in the ancient world. It’s time we bring back that tradition and use music to promote our own wellness. Even if you don’t fancy yourself a songwriter, give it a shot. You’ll surprise yourself.