“If words could say everything, there would be no need for music,” says Eric Mammen, music therapist and creative arts supervisor at CHOC. This mantra is a play on Edward Hopper’s quote, “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.”
The Child Life program uses specialized programs like music, pet and art therapy — plus so much more — to “normalize” the hospital environment and create ways for children to continue growing, healing and developing through bedside and playroom activities.
In this Q&A, Eric discusses his music therapy process and how kids and teens can use music and lyrics to express their emotions.
What is your typical process for helping kids or teens cope with their emotions through music?
At CHOC, we use a very individualized approach during music therapy sessions with our patients and families. If I’m working with a 3-year-old in oncology who’s in isolation, we might focus more on music stimulation — sitting together, playing with instruments, getting active and increasing sensory input.
On the contrary, if I’m working with a 17-year-old who lost a friend in oncology, we might do some more songwriting, relaxing or processing. The music therapy process will often change and adapt depending on the age of the kids and what we’re trying to accomplish.
However, I think the most important thing to remember about music therapy is that it’s not about the music; music is just the tool that use to reach non-musical goals. It’s a collaborative, cooperative experience shared by the patients, families and music therapists.
How can kids use music, music lyrics and songwriting to cope with emotions and relieve stress at home?
It’s important for parents to be aware that music can actually do harm. If someone is in the wrong headspace, they may have the tendency to fixate on songs that talk about self-harm, suicide or depression. I encourage patients to ask themselves some questions about why they are connecting with a particular song, like:
- Why am I listening to this song?
- What’s resonating with me about this song?
- What why am I drawn to this music?
These questions may be able to open doors for kids or teens to reach out for mental health help. A teen may realize that they really are thinking about taking their own life. Or they may realize that they need to stop listening to a certain type of music and listen to other things.
Although music therapy should be facilitated by a board-certified music therapist, there are ways that kids and teens can cope and relieve stress through music at home. Encourage your kids and teens to try the following:
- Pay attention to the music that you are listening to and notice if you are using the music to validate or express feelings you might be having. Explore listening to music that may help you make a change in your emotions or energy levels based on your current need.
- Play an instrument. If you don’t have an instrument, use your voice. Sing your favorite song in the shower or the car. Or move your body to music and have a dance party.
- Practice songwriting through journaling. Ask yourself how you are feeling and write down your first response. Then ask yourself why and go from there.
- Look up the lyrics to your favorite songs and pinpoint what stands out to you. Ask yourself why you like the lyrics, what they mean to you and why you can resonate with them.
How does songwriting help kids process their emotions?
Just like with making music, we’ll use songwriting as a tool for nonmusical goals in music therapy. If we’re doing songwriting, it’s not about the song itself; it’s about the process.
Songwriting can help kids and teens tap into any conscious or unconscious thoughts and feelings that they need to let out through music. There’s something cathartic about writing things down and then looking at it. It allows them to process what they’ve written from a different view and with a different perspective.
In my music therapy sessions, I’ve written songs with younger patients, but those tend to be silly — we just have fun and goof around. We’ll also use music to help drive a process, like if a patient needs to access support, take their medicine or go through a procedure.
Older patients, maybe ages 13 and older, often enjoy songwriting as their coping mechanism. Oftentimes, we won’t have time to finish the entire song, but it’s OK because it’s about just letting out emotions and getting them on the page.
What is the process of songwriting like in music therapy?
The songwriting process is basically just like brainstorming. I’ll guide a patient and ask them some questions. For example, the conversation can be like: “What are you feeling right now?” “I’m afraid.” “Why? What’s making you afraid?” And then we go off from there — kind of like brain mapping. As you talk about what the patient is thinking and feeling, you just get it on the page.
Or sometimes we’ll start straight with instrumentation. If a child has a favorite genre — like hip hop — we will play around with beats first. Then, we will write the lyrics.
Songwriting can really be done either way; you can start with the music, or you can start with the lyrics.
How can kids connect to music lyrics from artists?
A lot of artists are expressing what they’re going through in their music. As music therapists, we’re trained to look at lyrics and use lyric analysis. During sessions, we might listen to a song, pass out the lyrics, and have patients highlight, cross out or circle any words that jump out to them. Then, we’ll discuss how they can relate to it.
Additionally, a fun intervention I’ve done is we’ll listen to three songs back-to-back, highlight words that stand out and discuss them. After, I’ll pass out a blank piece of paper. Then, I will have them write their own song based on what they highlighted and mash it together.
Why do you think music and lyrics connect with so many people?
Music speaks to a deeper part of ourselves. It speaks to our spirit, soul and who we are on the inside. We can all listen to the same song and have different experiences based on our perspectives, past experiences and how we’re hearing the song.
I think that’s why music is incorporated into so many areas of our lives — weddings, parties, restaurants and even funerals. Music can help solidify our feelings and emotions and serve as a soundtrack that binds everything together.
The Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department at CHOC strives to normalize the hospital environment for patients and families.