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Healing the mind through songwriting

Healing the mind through songwriting

Music activates brains! Credit: University of Melbourne

Professor Felicity Baker. Credit: Stephen McKenzie.
Professor Felicity Baker is a music therapy researcher and head of music therapy at The University of Melbourne, who is leading a research team to investigate how musical creativity—including the creation, performance and recording of songs—can be a powerful tool in therapy.

Professor Baker’s work has used the transformative power of songwriting to assist people to self-explore, process, and resolve personal issues and express individual and collective identities. The participants of music therapy that she has worked with include people with mental illness, those in palliative care, and those who have suffered brain or spinal cord injuries.

“Music activates brains, through the experience known to musicians as ‘flow’,” says Professor Baker. “It also has the power to convey messages and emotions, to build or rebuild a person’s identity, and to explore new ways of thinking which are extremely useful in a therapeutic context.”

Through her Future Fellowship, awarded in 2010, Professor Baker examined the factors that influence the songwriting process, and its impact beyond the act of creation. The result was the construction of new methods and protocols, which could help music therapists to effectively use songwriting in a therapeutic setting.

The methods that Professor Baker developed to construct songs fall into outcome-oriented ‘collage’ methods, where the lyrical and musical content is integrated from many different sources, and experience-oriented ‘rapping’ methods, where a musical backdrop, is either rapped over either in real time, or refined to fit written lyrics.

“Sometimes we would use the songwriting process to challenge a person’s thinking about themselves. For instance, they might express “I have done nothing of value in my life”—which could be reframed to something positive by changing the word “nothing”. Then, these positive statements become lyrics of the song as a way of reinforcing positive thinking.”

Professor Baker says that songwriting can help to overcome blocks in the therapeutic process, helping to reconnect people with their emotions. However, there are also some unexpected consequences of the elicitation of powerful memories.

“Participants in songwriting therapy are often very proud of their creations, but are unaware of the consequences of sharing what is often very raw and emotional material. There is an ethical dimension to the sharing of these songs. Some participants may not be ready to confront their own expressed emotions or the questions of people who listen to their songs. On the other hand, sometimes participants become carried away with grandiose ideas of their own musical talent.”

Narrative creation through songwriting was one of the models developed by Professor Baker’s Future Fellowship and built on through a 2015 Discovery Project, which focussed on people who had suffered spinal and brain injuries. The approach taken was to work with the patients to write three songs to explore the questions: “Who was I?”; “Who am I now?”; and “Who will I be in the future?” Through this approach, Professor Baker says that patients were able to rediscover and rebuild their identity and psychological wellbeing.

An outcome of a randomized controlled trial of songwriting with acquired brain or spinal cord industry was published in the medical journal Clinical Rehabilitation, a significant first for research in the field of music therapy.

Professor Baker has found that music therapy often works particularly well for people with dementia, because it is strongly connected with their memories.

“There is an assumption that people with dementia cannot learn—but we would write songs together (at a day centre) and they were writing lyrics—week by week, they were learning the lyrics they were writing. And yet when we interviewed them during the process, they would say, “I haven’t been writing any songs!” says Professor Baker.

Professor Felicity Baker. Credit: Stephen McKenzie.
According to researchers, music has the capacity to stimulate the ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’ pleasure centre of the brain—rather than the ‘higher,’ more ‘cerebral,’ brain functions. This may be connected to the ability of music to ‘find the person behind the fog of dementia’, which Professor Baker says might be because it simultaneously activates many different parts of the brain, in ways that are being explored in parallel by neuroscientists.

“One of the unique things we have discovered is the connection between memory and emotion. Songwriting leads to greater meaning because emotionally-powerful events are encoded strongly into memory,” says Professor Baker.

The University of Melbourne has profiled Professor Baker’s work with dementia sufferers and this project is currently one of those highlighted in the university’s end-of-year appeal.

Professor Baker hopes to give her research students the opportunities that she sometimes lacked when she was an early career researcher.

“The field of music therapy was still in its infancy in the 1990s—my mentor, Emerita Professor Denise Grocke, was the first to be awarded a PhD in Australia.”

After specialising and working as a music therapy clinician in dementia and neuro-rehabilitation for nine years, Professor Baker returned to full-time research because “there were questions that needed to be answered!”.

“Now I have a 15-strong research team, and I structure the team to allow others to have the support and opportunities that I didn’t have”. One of Professor Baker’s first students, Dr Imogen Clark, won the 2018 Hazel Hawke Dementia Australia research grant to explore the potential of group songwriting to improve quality of life for people with dementia and their family carers.

Professor Baker has also secured significant grants for study into the use of music therapy for people with dementia, and hopes to expand her work to ‘train the trainer’, designing new interfaces that don’t require a qualified music therapist to deliver the therapy.

“My vision is to be able to adapt music therapy methods to accommodate different cultural contexts, across different regions of the globe. There are many different ways of caring for the elderly—I want to explore how therapy can fit into these different traditions,” says Professor Baker, but says her first concern is to ensure a strong supply of students.

“There are still not enough music therapists—there is plenty of work to do—but there are not enough of us! There are still questions that need to be answered!”

Images: (Top) Professor Felicity Baker. Credit: Stephen McKenzie. (Bottom) Music activates brains! Credit: The University of Melbourne.

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