“Where words fail, music speaks.”- Hans Christian Anderson
Music bypasses our defenses and logic, accessing our emotions in a way that talking cannot. Maybe you have noticed that a song can move you to tears while hearing the same message in spoken word has little to no impact on your emotions. Music also makes us feel seen and understood as we hear our experiences in someone else’s song. I am not an official “music therapist”, but I still use the amazing power of music to help my clients express and feel what they cannot put into words.
A former client told me the only time she ever felt emotion was while singing in her choir. So we started each session with a song to help her grow in her ability to feel. It was powerful. Often tears would come and she did not even know why. Over time she could put words to her tears and emotions which brought her wonderful relief.
I wanted to share my top 10 favorite songs (in no particular order) to use with clients in session to help them feel understood, to access deeper emotions and, sometimes, to not take themselves too seriously. Enjoy!
1) Save Myself by Ed Sheeran
I play this song when I teach on boundaries and codependency. Sheeran beautifully illustrates what life is like for a “people-pleaser” who focuses so much on others that he himself is falling apart. The songs opens with the powerful line “I gave all my oxygen to people who could breathe.” That line hits me right in the gut. This song is his realization that “Before I save someone else, I’ve got to save myself”. I have clients listen to this song for encouragement if they are learning to set boundaries and take care of themselves as a reminder that it’s okay to do so.
2) Alive by SIA
In general, most of SIA’s work can be used in a therapeutic setting. SIA is a recovering addict and you can hear those themes throughout her music. I am not sure about her family background but it sounds like she also might be a child of addicts as I hear those themes as well. Alive is an incredibly empowering song. It’s a song I have blasted in my car while driving on the freeway singing at the top of my lungs. Sometimes she is hard to understand so here is the first verse:
I was born in a thunderstorm
I grew up overnight
I played alone
I played on my own
If you are the adult child of an addict or grew up in a chaotic or abusive home, this song is for you. SIA looks back from where she came from and then loudly declares: “I’M STILL BREATHING, I’M STILL BREATHING. I’M ALIIIIIIIVE!” For people who come from adverse childhood experiences, getting free of their effects can feel impossible. This song is like a light at the end of a dark tunnel reminding them that they have survived and can get through the aftereffects of their trauma.
3) Let it Matter by Johnnyswim
First, I love this band. Second, this song is therapy in under 4 minutes. It’s about allowing yourself to feel the pain of losing someone. Often I have clients who are uncomfortable acknowledging or expressing their pain. This song normalizes our pain and explains that it means we cared. “If it matters, let it matter if your heart’s breaking let it ache.” Our pain is a sign that something important to us is gone. And pain will have its time one way or another “the best way over is through” so it’s best that we give it space so it does not come out in other, more destructive ways like bitterness or numbing out. Johnnyswim assures the listener that “your hurt is not in vain”.
4) Beam Me Up by P!nk
This song makes me ugly cry. The first time I heard it I knew it was about the death of a loved one. P!NK captures how it feels to want to talk to and see your loved one after they have died so perfectly, it took my breath away. In a brief interview, she shared that this song specifically was about the loss of a child but I think it can fit for any kind of loss.
5) Rescue You by Johnnyswim (again)
I told you I love this band! I also use this song when I teach about boundaries and codependency. There are so many pop songs that promote the idea that love fixes everything. The reality is that it doesn’t. No matter how much another person loves us, we have to take the steps to make the changes in our lives. If you have a tendency to want to fix people and feel guilty when you are not available when they “need” you, this song might be a helpful encouragement. Sometimes we have people in our lives who do not want to take responsibility for their choices and situation and try to pull us in to take charge of their lives for them. This is not helpful for them or us in the long run, though saying no can feel unkind and wrong. In reality, the most loving thing we can do is allow people to take responsibility for their own lives and choices.
6) Runaway Love by Ludacris feat. Mary J. Blige
I think it’s good to have some variation in genre on this list. I first heard this song when I was working with at-risk youth in a residential facility. This song tells the story of different young women who are victims of abuse and end up on the streets as a result. It brings compassion to people we might initially have judgment towards: addicts, the homeless, women and girls in prostitution. Ludacris explains the stress and fear of living in an abusive home and gives love and understanding to girls who feel stuck between the hell of their home and life on the streets.
7) Carry Me by The Secret Sisters
This is another song that hit me in the gut upon first listen. If you have been in relationship with someone who is avoidant or you yourself have avoidant tendencies, this song will probably resonate with you. When people are avoidant in their romantic relationships, often they desire closeness and intimacy but are also terrified by it. My favorite line from this song is “I’m ashamed of the things that I’ve done/Facing love is like facing a gun.” But the chorus goes on to express a desire to change when they say, “If I keep hiding how will I be known?” To be known is to be vulnerable and to risk.
8) Till it Happens to You by Lady Gaga
I just watched Lady Gaga’s 2016 Oscar Performance of this song (below) and got teary eyed again along with all the fancy celebrities there. This song is simple but holds the anger and isolation often felt by victims of sexual abuse and assault. It validates that no one can know what it’s like to be abused in such a deeply hurtful way unless they have experienced it too. This song says it’s okay for it to feel like “your world burns and crashes”. It normalizes those feelings and strongly states, I am allowed to be angry and hurt and you have no right to judge me because, “Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels”.
9) Kevin by Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis feat. Leon Bridges
Kevin is a great song for anyone who has lost a loved one to addiction and overdose and/or is addicted themselves. It specifically talks about the opioid epidemic in the form of prescription medication. You can hear the struggle of being chemically dependent when Mackelmore states:
He was gonna quit tomorrow, we’re all gonna quit tomorrow
Just get us through the weekend, and then Monday follows
Then it’s Wednesday, then it’s f*ck it, I’m already feeling hollow
Might as well go crack a seal and might as well go chug a bottle
Might as well go pop a pill and go and band-aid that problem
And escape this world, vacate this world
‘Cause I hate myself
No praying’s gonna cure this pain
I love Mackelmore because he is so honest. He explains addiction in a way that cuts to the core of a person that me explaining it can’t. We can see how negative, all or nothing thinking can propel someone deeper into their drug abuse and addiction in addition to the physical symptoms of withdrawal.
10) When He Sees Me by Sara Bareilles
I end this post with a more lighthearted song written by Sara Bareilles for her Broadway musical, Waitress. A friend recommended I give this song a listen saying that it encapsulates so much of the female brain. I found myself laughing and nodding my head emphatically but also empathizing with the singer. It’s a great picture of how we can overthink things and add to our anxiety, especially when it comes to dating and romantic relationships. You can listen to this song, laugh at yourself and know you are not alone in your relational anxieties.
If you you could use an emotional release or have some pent up feelings that won’t come out, choose one of these songs that you relate to, find a comfortable seat and listen to the song fully. Allow whatever thoughts and feelings the song elicits to come. If you want you can journal about your experience or draw about it to continue expressing your emotions. It is also helpful to do this with the support of a therapist to help you process and make meaning of the emotions that come, so don’t hesitate to call and set up your first appointment!