How Songwriting is Therapy (Emma G)

Do you remember as a teenager listening to certain songs and thinking that finally someone understood how you felt? Finally: you weren’t alone with your feelings or thoughts. Someone had put the words together that encapsulated what you were going through at that moment in time.

When I was younger, those bands were varied, but the artists that stuck with me the most were the ones that best helped me channel my voice and my fears, and shape my understanding of the world: Pink, Linkin Park, Enigma, Eminem, and Otep. Five completely different artists that both gave me hope but also helped me express my frustration, anger, overwhelm, fear, hurt, and depression.

Music therapy, as defined by the American Music Therapy Association is “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program”. It can be practiced in multiple forms:

  • listening to melodies
  • playing an instrument
  • drumming
  • guided imagery and
  • writing songs

But how does it work?

According to the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), music fires up neuropathways in the brain that increase our connection to positive experiences and feelings. Listening to music stimulates dopamine, which is linked to feelings of pleasure, and oxytocin aka the “love hormone”. There’s also evidence to suggest that music lowers our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. So even when we are feeling our absolute worst, hearing our favorite songs has the ability to alchemize our angst into something positive — even if the music doesn’t sound positive. Listening and singing along to songs that identify and express similar negative emotions to those that we are feeling helps us to feel validated, seen, and heard.

Which is all well and good, but surely there’s more to music therapy than simply plugging in and zoning out? And surely there’s something more to it than listening to Sam Cooke, Iron Maiden, or Tina Turner and having our feelings validated? And isn’t there a danger of getting stuck in a loop of anger when we’re constantly listening to angry music?

This is why songwriting is such a powerful tool in the music therapy toolbox. Songwriting offers us the ability to use music as a safety blanket that allows us to step into those vulnerable spaces within our conscience, and start to work through where our thoughts are coming from, why, and potentially even turn those struggles into songs of strength, resilience, and triumph.

Music, as well as songwriting, stimulates multiple areas within our brain that help us to rewire our thoughts, ideas, and memory banks:

  • The prefrontal cortex, which operates our behavior and decision making. Thus we can use songwriting and music to restructure our thinking around difficult events, enabling us to make better decisions next time we are faced with adversity.
  • The nucleus accumbens and amygdala, which are involved in emotional reactions. We aren’t what happens to us — but we are how we respond, so we can utilize lyric-writing to help us envision potential responses to the chaos that surrounds us.
  • The hippocampus, which is involved in memory and experiences, including music memory. This stimulation is particularly key for therapeutic practices as it helps recall painful experiences that have subconsciously formed our present-day beliefs, ideas and judgments. Only once we truly identify our emotional scars can we start to work through them and heal ourselves.
  • The cerebellum, which is responsible for movement but also plays a role in regulating our emotional reactions. Stimulating the cerebellum can be particularly key when it comes to survivors of physical or sexual abuse, as previous traumas can seriously affect how survivors carry themselves, their body language, and the ways in which they physically interact with the world.

Thus, both songwriting and music offer a creative solution for helping clients identify, process, understand, and overcome trauma in ways that traditional therapy might not necessarily be able to fix as quickly. This is especially the case for Millennial and Generation Z clients, whose early exposure to technology requires different stimulation than earlier generations.

So while many of us simply appreciate music for the feelings it stirs within us, music is a much more complicated beast. It has served me time and time again, as I use it to identify, process, and overcome my own traumas, learn from them, and grow.

These days, the songs I listen to in order to feel understood are written by me — and are now my sword and shield as I allow the world around me to understand, listen to, and connect with me.

So when people ask whether music can be therapy, the short answer is yes. But it’s more than the definition I gave earlier: it’s a multifaceted tool that can continue to serve clients long after they write their songs of truth, healing, and growth.

— Emma G

Singer/songwriter and Youth Empowerment Coach Emma G has been using the power of music to empower, uplift and motivate audiences worldwide her entire life.

Born with a rare neurological condition called hydrocephalus, Emma G has used music to recover from multiple traumas, including ten brain surgeries, by writing and singing her truth, sharing her experiences, and turning her lessons into blessings. With a unique style that marries the styles of pop, soulful ballads, and a gritty rock edge, Emma G’s style appeals to a hugely diverse audience worldwide.

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The Soundshop Music Blog

The Soundshop Music Blog

This is the blog of The Soundshop music salon and community of New York City. This blog aims to analyze music in a way that enhances general music knowledge.