Increase Coping and Resilience by Writing a Song
Here's how to write your song.
Updated August 27, 2023
Songwriting is an especially powerful tool used by music therapists. It opens a path to access, verbalize, and express feelings that are otherwise often difficult to process. It harnesses creativity, which is one of the most potent enhancers of resilience and coping ability.
With stressors, including the recurring COVID pandemic, many people experience a vague unease, a diminished feeling of well-being. They also have a feeling of loss, sometimes specific, sometimes nameless.
Songwriting is an effective tool to deal with just such problems. It helps a person identify, express, and release thoughts and feelings. This happens on both an intellectual and a gut level.
Dan Schteingart, a board-certified music therapist and a licensed creative arts therapist, is a music therapist in New York City's health care system and the director of ManhattanMusicTherapy.com. He has much experience in using songwriting as a therapeutic tool. “As they write their songs, people come to more awareness of their feelings, and explore ways they might better cope with them," he says.
Here, music therapist Dan Schteingart shows us some techniques for writing our own songs, to help put into words our sometimes-vague feelings and find ways to better cope so we increase our sense of mastery.
You can write a song
Dan Schteingart: “When facilitating songwriting, I often hear: ‘Oh I don't know how to do that,’ or ‘I'm not musical,' or ‘I've never written anything before.’ My reply is always: ‘That's OK. There's no right or wrong, there's just expression.'"
“There are many conventions when it comes to commercial songwriting such as structure, form, rhyming schemes, melody, harmony, and chord progressions. But you don't need to know any of that to write a song from your heart."
How to begin
“Similar to writing a poem, you might start by thinking of a theme you want to write about. You could jot down some related words, a first line, or a refrain. Alternatively, you could start with music: a rhythmic musical beat; part of the melody of a song you already like; or a few notes of a musical phrase you make up on your own. You may find yourself favoring one method over the other, and that’s fine."
“Start writing down words: how you feel ... what your goals are for the next week ... or for the next year... or for your life. Imagine if someone were to ask: What are you thinking about? Then, write down how you might answer.
“To make it more complex, you might add some similes or metaphors. For example: ‘I feel like a swirling wind trapped in a bottle.’ Or, ‘My sadness is an empty boat floating on the ocean.’
“Rhyming can help the process. Songs, like poems, don't have to rhyme but it tends to be easier to rhyme at first to get you going. Try going through the alphabet with the first letter of the word or syllable you’d like to rhyme. For instance, if your line is: ‘I wish I felt like yesterday,’ go through the alphabet looking for rhymes with day (Ay, Bay, Clay, Day, Fray, Gray …) So as an example for the next line, you might write: ‘That's when I could say what I wanted to say’ or ‘I didn't have to feel so gray’. (And, of course, as Paul McCartney realized, ‘All my troubles seemed so far away.’)
“Another possibility is to use the beginning of a phrase from a song you like, and continue it with words of your own. Such as: 'You are my ____, my only ____, you make me _____, when _______' (From 'You are My Sunshine')."
Writing the music
“You might write your own words and then use the entire melody or instrumental version of a song you like. Or, you can compose a melody or chord progression of your own, as simple or as complicated as you wish.
“If you do know musical keys and chords, you might start in the key of C to make it easiest. Then, use the chords of C, F, and G major, for what’s known as a “1, 4, 5” progression.
“If you want more structure, you could create the following: -verse one; chorus/refrain; verse two; chorus/refrain; bridge (taking the “story” from the beginning to the end); chorus. But don't worry if that is too much information. Just sticking to your original intention is fine.
"Now, add a title to your song."
Processing What You Wrote
“Read it back or sing it to yourself. Then ask yourself these questions:
What did you say? ... Why do you think you thought of that? ... What are some of the negative feelings you expressed? ... How might you be able to experience those negative feelings less? ... What about the more positive things you wrote? ... How can you incorporate more of that into your life? ... Even into your daily or weekly routine?”
“Beautiful moments happen often in music therapy," Dan Schteingart says. "When a person sings or reflects on the lyrics they wrote, it can crystallize an emotion, thought, or realization about themselves. It can enhance self-awareness, resilience, pleasure, and well-being.”
So ... give it a try!