PERSPECTIVES IN SONGWRITING by Sarah McInnis
About songwriting Paul Simon said, “It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin.”
As a person who tends to write songs about what I know to be true, here are some truths I’d like to share…
- I have been writing songs since about the age of 15 – I will forever be nervous to share them with others.
- For every one song you share with the world, there are a dozen or more others that will forever lay hidden in the pages of a journal, or a recording app on your phone.
- Songwriting has been at the centre of my self-expression, emotional processing, and mental well-being; it has also, undeniably, made it possible to connect and relate to the emotional spaces of other people, which is the most beautiful thing.
- Even if no one listened, I would write songs. Songs have the ability to commemorate thought and feeling through words and music. This is unlike any other form of expression I have come across.
- EVERYONE and ANYONE can write songs.
For a long time, songwriting was a very personal process to me. Early on, it was something that I would do when trying to make sense of experiences and the way I was growing to understand the world. My most recent song creations have evolved to include preserving memory and telling stories through song, and I find myself doing this particularly with my family members who have passed away. To date I have written songs for my two grandfathers, my grandmother, my great uncle, and my great, great, great grandfather. And while the stories in those songs are written very specifically about these individuals, it continues to amaze me how others find themselves relating them to their own lives and their own family members. There is something to be said for that moment when another human tells you that your song has resonated with them on some level; that you’ve been able to turn into sound things that they themselves haven’t known how to express. Even more wonderful is when people have spoken to me about their loved ones who have died, and something they heard in one of my songs brings once again to their lips the name and story of that person. As an avid listener of music, I have had this experience myself, more times than I can remember. I recall listening to “Doggone Lonely” written by Rose Cousins, at a time when I was living abroad. At the age of 21 I was not home to say goodbye to our family cat who had been a part of my life since the age of 2. It only took until the end of the first verse until I was moved to tears feeling the words resonate on such a deep level. It was as if the song was written about my experience (though the main subject of course, was a dog instead). There is something cathartic about having our experiences voiced in songs, for the songwriter, surely, but as the listener too. It provides an outlet for the hard feelings like pain, sorrow, longing, anger, regret, and an uncanny ability to move us towards feelings of letting go, joy, and gratitude.
While songwriting has been a pillar of expression in my own life, I have been learning about and witnessing the power of songwriting with clients in my work as a music therapist. I have had the chance to work on crafting a song with one client in particular, and he has shown me that songwriting can truly be used as a therapeutic tool for anyone who is willing to engage in the process. This client had suffered a traumatic brain stem injury in his early twenties and had lost his ability to speak. Though he couldn’t talk, his comprehension and ability to communicate internal thoughts was still intact. Now in his 60s, he uses an alphabet board to spell out words, letter by letter, forming complete, and often witty and humorous sentences in response to those around him. The difficulty comes in the time it takes this individual to communicate. While staff who interact with him are able to joke and share brief interactions throughout the day, they often lack the time needed to sit and have a conversation with him. After spending some time with him in a group setting and learning about how he communicates, I approached him to ask if he would be interested in writing a song with me. The topic, style, instrumentation, would be completely his to decide. After a thoughtful pause, he spelled out “When do we start?”
And so, over the course of 6 months, I met with him for an hour every week. Early on he had suggested the topic of his childhood, and so between sips of coffee, and joking around, he shared with me where he grew up, what he did for fun, what kind of music he listened to, things about his family, all slowly and deliberately spelled out, one letter at a time on a very well-used mahogany letter board, made for him by his father. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, we had been on the verge of piecing together his stories, using a popular “Sheep Dogs” song as the musical base for his words. When we are allowed to work together again, he will have a completed and recorded song, something he can share with others if he chooses, so they too are able to learn about who he is, rather than what happened to him.
My hopes for the use of songwriting in music therapy are endless, as is the learning about how it can be used as an outlet for expression. One of the goals that I have for working with songwriting in music therapy is for legacy projects. Legacy projects are individually tailored to help clients discuss life review, accomplishments, and heritage at the end of their life. With songwriting, the possibilities are endless – one song, or a whole albums worth may be created to honour the individuals life; composed songs may be written with family members or friends; clients might also choose to compile songs they already know and love to express the things they find themselves unable to.
I have been fortunate enough to be able care for and nurture the songwriting seeds in my brain – I only hope to be able to help others do the same for their own!
One final truth: There is no right or wrong in songwriting. If you’re stuck, just start with what you know to be true.
Thanks for reading,
Sarah McInnis, Music Therapist – SOUND CONNECTIONS THERAPY SERVICES
For more songs from Sarah McInnis visit www.sarahmcinnis.com or youtube