I hadn’t written a single song in my life when I decided to become a music therapist, nor did I have plans to do so. But plans change, especially when I started working with children who were diagnosed with autism.
I learned very quickly that one song does NOT fit all when it comes to meeting the needs of my students, which is why I started composing simple, goal-based songs to use in music therapy sessions.
Before I knew it, I had amassed an entire collection of songs (which I eventually named Listen & Learn Music) covering just about every topic imaginable — including learning colors, making eye contact, self-care skills, and language. I was anything BUT a songwriting expert; however, if you do something enough, you’re bound to find an approach that works.
My songs all have one thing in common: they’re based on an actual goal or objective. Whether it is an individual goal from a student’s IEP or a classroom objective set by a teacher, each song is written with a specific outcome in mind.
Then the fun begins. I always start with the lyrics so that I’m sure to include all the necessary information for addressing the goal or objective. I use clear, basic language and LOTS of repetition. My students thrive on repetition; it makes the song (and therefore, the information) easier to learn and remember.
There’s no real science for coming up with a melody to fit the song. Usually it comes to me as I write the lyrics, and I simply use a voice recorder to capture it. And just like the words, I try to keep my melodies simple, memorable, and repetitive.
The most rewarding part of songwriting is watching as a child with autism hears the song for the first time, eventually begins to join in singing, and then gradually learns the skill or information for which it was written.
Songwriting can be as simple as changing the words to “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star,” as I often tell my students’ parents and teachers, and those simple songs are often the most effective.
Songwriting isn’t about fancy techniques or expensive equipment; it’s about reaching your audience. Music reaches children with special needs in a way that other means of communication can’t, which is the basis of what I do as a music therapist.
Photo by Ernst Vikne