It’s rare that songwriters set out to write a new song with the goal of making it “therapeutic” for their listeners. Most of us write songs because we enjoy the process, and many of us find it therapeutic. Some of us also write songs because we’re dreaming of that big hit. (Who hasn’t secretly entertained the fantasy of hitting the top of the charts?)
But if music is healing, what are the components that make a song therapeutic? This question can be hard to answer, because the answer can be somewhat subjective. Or at least that has been my discovery. As a lifelong songwriter and performer, I lead music therapy groups for people in substance abuse and mental health treatment; and I can say there can be variation between what one person finds therapeutic and another person finds therapeutic.
That said, there are a few (relatively objective) “essentials” for a song to be therapeutic. And no, it’s not a coincidence that some of the biggest hits on pop music charts are also therapeutic to listen to.
What does it mean for a song to be therapeutic, and what are the key ingredients that make a song so? Here are some things I’ve discovered, in the hope they’re helpful.
What Makes a Song Therapeutic?
In one sense, just about every song and all music can be therapeutic, insofar as musical preferences can be all over the map. When we talk about “music therapy,” though, we’re talking about music that:
- Helps a person express what they are feeling, by providing an outlet for that expression.
- Provides emotional support.
- Strengthens a person’s resolve to be healthy and whole.
- Builds interpersonal connections between people.
In essence, a song that’s therapeutic will do many of these things, in varying degrees, for its listeners.
Three Key Ingredients for Writing a Therapeutic Song
A question that follows is how does a song achieve these healing effects? Here it may be helpful to think in terms of the “essentials,” or the key ingredients, that meet the above objectives. From my experience, the following three elements are like minimum requirements for a song to be therapeutic:
1) A strong emotional connection — Emotional connection is that bridge in feeling, desire, and human experience with the listener. It’s you, the songwriter, feeling what you’re feeling when you sing a song, then letting the audience overhear.
This process can require some faith and vulnerability on the part of a songwriter, and there is no guaranteed outcome. You’re sharing emotions with strangers who may or may not be able to go to that same space within themselves.
But when they do, it’s because that song has struck a chord they can relate to — or want to relate to. One example might be the song “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams. It’s conveying the emotion of happiness in a very clear, almost simplistic way that’s also contagious and easy to connect to.
But “feel-good,” positive emotions aren’t a requirement for a song to be therapeutic. The key is creating that desire or feeling that reaches the listener, so they can access within themselves the same primal emotional experience. They may not even be able to give words to this felt expression, but it resonates in a palpable way. Here are just three examples of many songs that achieve this effect:
- “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey appeals to hope and the desire to prevail against the odds.
- “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen transforms the anger and resentment that simmer just beneath the surface — about being stuck in the “death trap” of a low-level job in a poor, dying town — into the unstoppable desire to be free and alive.
- “Broken Mirror,” a song that a patient in one of my therapy groups wrote with me, is about how when she looks in the mirror, she isn’t able to see herself the way she really is and blames this problem on the broken mirror. The song is really a commentary about social media and how it can falsely tell people their value is measured in terms of “likes”; but it also speaks to many of us who may struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, or a sense of not measuring up to other people’s judgments.
2) A compelling and authentic message or story that’s your own — A compelling and authentic message or story is one that’s from the heart. Think about what you’re passionate about. Sometimes it can help to close the eyes and think about a personal story or experience that hits home and how to express it.
Or, say you’re thinking about a conversation you had with someone, and maybe something they said made an impact on you. That can be a great place to start thinking about a rhythm and a pattern that can carry that message.
I often like to write an outline of what I want to say, and then put it in lyrical form. Often, it’s during that process as I read what I wrote, that a tune will come into my mind.
The songs that are more therapeutic for people are those that tell them the story of their life — or some part of their story that really resonates. A song that makes this kind of impact is usually related to the songwriter’s life in some way. They may be talking about their own experience through a fictional character, but the underlying theme or message is one that hits close to home. It’s usually their “own” story, insofar as it’s what they’re most passionate about or has come to be part of them in some way.
3) Instrumentalism that effectively channels the message/story and the emotions that underlie it — The instrumentalism of a song needs to be an effective musical conduit for the message/story and their emotional cadences. The right fit of tune is like an amplifier. A therapeutic word uttered by a minister, counselor, or good friend might quickly be forgotten; when put to music, it can stay with a person for a whole lifetime.
The tune and instrumentalism help to anchor the message of the song and give weight to the emotion behind the lyrics. Often, some of the most therapeutic tunes have very simple melodies. But that’s their strength. They’re memorable. They’re easy to tap a foot to. You can sing them in the shower.
A good tune can be therapeutic, so to arrive full circle at where we began — if your goal is to write a therapeutic song, it’s not going to happen. Just write about how you feel and what you’re most passionate about. Write about things you’ve seen or that people have said to you that have been most impactful. Write from your experiences — tell stories from them. Chances are, that if the song you write is therapeutic for you, it will be for someone else also.