Music Therapy: Beyond the Notes

By Lynn McCracken

Today music is produced by few and consumed by many. It hasn’t always been this way. Music wasn’t even recorded until about a hundred years ago. In the past, before iPads, iPods, computers, television and radios, it was common for families to gather and sing and play music together to pass the time. In addition to the entertainment value, it was a way to reduce stress, bond and experience connection through emotional expression. Living in this technological age where we have access to recordings of the best musicians in the world is amazing: never in our history have we been able to watch live performances of our favorite artists or listen to any song we want to hear with the click of a mouse. We have gained so much, but we have lost something valuable. It seems like, as a society, we have started believing that singing and performing music is only for “talented” artists. We may sing in our cars, or when we are alone in our homes, but when we do not sound like these professionally-produced musicians, we decide that we are not good enough and so we just leave it to the “pros.”

In my “day job,” I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor working with people who are struggling in some way. For many years, I have specialized in working with difficult teens and their families. I’m sure you can imagine what the first session might look like: the teen with their arms crossed sitting across from me and their parents thinking…“I’m not talking to you, you can’t make me do anything!” I’m not a mind reader, I only know what they are thinking because I was that teenager when I was young. I found early in my work that using music was the fastest way to connect and build trust with the most resistant clients. I simply ask them to bring in their favorite band or song and just sit and listen with them non-judgmentally (not reacting in the way their parents might to the content or curse words), asking questions about what parts of the lyrics that they relate to. Over the years, I developed many ways to use music to get family members to relate to one another and to get people to connect on a deeper level. I have seen music bring down so many walls inside of and between people over the years. It is the single most powerful tool I have in working with people who are struggling but don’t want or know how to talk about it. Pete Seegar explains,

“Good music can leap over language boundaries, over barriers of religion and politics and hit someone’s heartstrings somehow. That opens up their hearts to ideas that they might not have entertained if brought in through regular speech.”

When I get home after a long day of “saving the world,” I use music to reconnect with my own inner world and to process the pain that I witnessed all day. When I was young, I wrote songs alone in my room to cope with my chaotic family situation. Music was my refuge. This is why it was so natural for me to reach for music as a therapeutic tool even though I’m not a “music therapist.” A few years ago, I decided to take guitar lessons and started writing songs again, but it was a very private thing for me. Realizing that I can only take my clients as far as I was willing to go, I decided to start sharing my music despite having struggled with stage fright my whole life. I made a CD this last year with the goal to use my music to help others to connect with their own emotions and also to inspire them to face their own fears. For many years I have been discovering ways to combine my love for helping people with my passion for music and I am thankful for the opportunity to help people to heal and connect with others using music.