Article Review: Songwriting, Art, and Trauma
Trauma is complex, whether experienced or witnessed. Think sexual, psychological, and physical abuse, as well as maltreatment, and neglect. It’s one of those things that can take various forms, living inside our minds as a memory or series of memories that plays on repeat, while feeding on the past like a parasite that won’t let go. It manifests in our minds and puts on a production that presents itself through our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in ways that are sometimes out of our control. I believe that we all have our own trauma, but I would argue that we are not all victims of trauma. We as humans go through our lives, experiencing “traumatizing” events that can alter our path or affect how we respond in future situations. But trauma itself is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”, which implies that the human being, whether mind, body, or soul, has been significantly damaged. Overall, trauma is not something to be taken lightly.
Traumatic experiences can be difficult to cope with and move beyond. A victim of trauma can get fixed in a loop of the same event, confuse the past with the present, while becoming helpless of feeling in control of his or her environment. Depending on the type of trauma, different stimuli can trigger specific emotional and behavioral responses. For example, a victim of sexual abuse may experience significant stress and anxiety if confronted with an intimate situation with a person of the opposite sex, ultimately leading to a sense of fear. To be reminded of a traumatic experience can almost be like reliving it through evoking physiological symptoms such as increased heart and respiratory rate, or feelings of fear and helplessness, which all mimic what the actual event was like. Trauma is complex.
Thankfully, more research is being done on how to treat the negative consequences of trauma-related experiences. In the article read for this review, Christenbury (2015) introduces us to a brief overview of the effects of trauma. The introduction explains that trauma can negatively impact the structure and functioning of the brain with consequences of social, emotional, and intellectual development. Victims of trauma are more likely to blame themselves, become filled with shame, and exhibit self-destructive behaviors. Furthermore, feelings such as lack of self-worth, self-blame, the inability to express emotions and, poor organizational and problem-solving skills are all likely consequences of trauma. There are, however, modalities to remediate these consequences. “Like what?” you ask? Creative arts, such as, music therapy and art therapy.
Christenbury (2015) tells the story of a patient she treated over a six-month period in which she used multiple modalities of both music and art to achieve therapeutic outcomes. The client, referred to as Leah, is a young girl who was both physically and sexually abused as a child. The approach taken in this case study was very unique in that the therapist utilized both music and art to facilitate treatment outcomes. The timeline of treatment was about 9 sessions long, and consisted of Leah drawing pictures related to basic emotions of happy, sad, anger, and safety (I wonder here, is safety an emotion or more so a feeling?). After the sessions that involved drawing pictures, the therapist would go and write a song that was based off of the drawing and inspirational content discussed in the previous session. Now you might be thinking, what about therapist countertransference? Well, Christenbury addresses this issue appropriately near the end of the article.
I enjoyed reading this article and encourage others to read it for a number of reasons. First, the article was written in a non-traditional format of most research articles and took the approach of telling a story of the subjective AND objective data. Through most of my research courses I’ve learned that when presenting research you are telling a story and must capture the interest of your audience by providing purpose. Unfortunately, a lot of the interest can get lost in a quantitative study where one can end up drowning in the data. This is a great read for those who enjoy reading in a prose format.
Second, the author did a fantastic job at articulating the characteristics of the music that were used within the study (If you’ve ready any of my other reviews you know that this is something I feel very strongly about). For each song there was a corresponding emotion that was portrayed through specific characteristics in the elements of music. Overall, the songs were described as short with voice and guitar accompaniment, while each individual piece was discussed more or less in terms of harmony, rhythm, strum pattern, etc. Furthermore, the author has audio examples of the songs written! I haven’t listened yet, but I plan to do so ASAP. Finally, this article raised some questions for me. Creative art therapies have gained momentum in becoming recognized by allied healthcare professions in the past few years, including music therapy, art therapy, and drama therapy. So I begin to ask, are we at a point where we are beginning to stand on our own two feet as primary approaches to therapy? We’ve often been referred to as “alternative” therapies, which I no longer believe is the case. Also, is it appropriate to use things such as art and drama in music therapy sessions without the proper training? How can the creative arts begin collaborating to develop finite techniques like the one introduced in this article? What can I do to bridge this gap? These are the discussions I believe we need to start having as a profession so that we can become a primary therapy that has proven to and will continue to accomplish unique outcomes.
Christenbury, K. R. (2015). I will follow you: the combined use of songwriting and art to promote healing in a child who has been traumatized. Music Therapy Perspectives, 35(1), 1-12.