By James E. Riley, MM, MT-BC

Song lyrics are a powerful tool used by Board-Certified Music Therapists serving medical, palliative, educational, and mental health populations. Lyric analysis uses commercial or pre-composed songs to facilitate counseling interventions with groups or individuals. Although the term lyric analysis may also refer to a therapist’s post-session analysis of client-composed songs (e.g. O’Callaghan & Grocke, 2009), this post will focus on suggestions and variations for analyzing existing lyrics as an in-session intervention.

 Music activates the limbic structures deep in the brain also responsible for emotion and memory. MT-BCs a) control musical characteristics to access a client’s affective reality, b) select lyrics that will guide the transition of felt truths into meaningful verbalizations, then c) validate, question, challenge, and motivate through counseling to accomplish non-musical objectives.

 Live or Recorded?

Live music distinguishes MT-BCs from other professionals, increases perception of our therapeutic competence (Silverman, 2009), allows for control of musical characteristics or alteration of lyrics, provides opportunities for nonverbal engagement, and seems to increase empathy through the musical relationship.  

Pre-recorded music usually evokes a positive response from clients due to familiarity and may help to maintain therapeutic progress whenever the song is heard in the future because the words are now associated with the MT session.   

Both performed and canned music are equally affective. Whether you use a Taylor nylon or a JPL speaker may depend on the music genre, because an acoustic arrangement of the Beatle’s “Yesterday” will be easier to play than “Right Where It Belongs” by Nine Inch Nails. Clinical experience will shape your success in selecting the best medium of audio presentation.


Whether performing or pressing play, you should prepare printed lyric sheets and writing utensils. Number your lines for quick reference during song discussion. I recommend 1.5-line spacing because most songs will fit on a single page yet there will be space for notes while listening or word replacement during a follow-up song rewrite. Finally, in addition to the song title, include the artist, album, year, genre, and any other applicable details. Contextual information may expand the scope of your discussion. For example, Silverman (2011) facilitated “rockumentaries” which examined drug and lifestyle choices of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to enrich analysis of select discography.   

PBMTI’s Spotify channel, “Guest DJs” on the PBMTI blog, and websites such as or are excellent resources for identifying songs by topics. Client suggestions will also provide poignantly topical, personally meaningful, and patient-preferred repertoire. A final resource,, will provide lyrics, background information, and explanation of in-text references. Once you have selected your songs, I recommend preparing several questions, metaphors, possible complementary handouts, and perhaps follow-up homework assignments.  


Prompt clients to enjoy active listening, underlining any favorite phrases, and noting personal reflections. Ease into discussion by asking if they enjoyed the music, how they would describe the mood, what the song is about, or if they will read their favorite lines aloud. Use your experience, knowledge of various counseling paradigms, and intuition to move forward. Ask what people think of specific lines and examine interpretations. How does this song relate to their lives or the treatment process? Pretend they were writing this song; whom would they be writing it to? Whom would they hope is writing it to them? Can you find examples of maladaptive coping skills? How should the singer have handled the situation differently? What are some situations and triggers that challenge you? What are your own coping skills? Is Elvis “All Shook Up” because of a person, or could it be something else? It seems Lady Gaga is desperate for “Applause”; who claps for you? Whom do you let influence your feelings and choices? Whom do you call when you need “Help!”? Which choices, behaviors, and people have increased your “Strength, Courage, and Wisdom”?  How are you going to “Change”? Considering India Arie’s use of the word, what does “light” mean? What action steps will give you “Strength To Endure”?


There are many ways to spice up your lyric analysis sessions. Increase attention to lyrics of an unfamiliar song by having clients “fill-in-the-blanks” while listening. Instruct people to “blackout” all of the undesired lyrics so that the remaining words will produce a unique new poem. Increase attention to concepts by listening to multiple songs then considering comparisons and contracts. Laugh about common mondegreens to then practice communication skills. Draw a large picture of a bridge, write in clients’ reported “troubles” in the water, help them determine supportive coping skills within the pylons, explore where they want their bridge to go, and prepare action steps for a successful journey. Discuss Pink Floyd’s “Time” to begin a log tracking every half hour, perhaps setting up reinforcements and disapprovals for specific activities. Role-play scenarios. Write Dido “Thank You” letters. Analyze songs on a road trip across the country. Paint. Make Masks. Dance. Finally, follow-up songwriting interventions are also extremely powerful and versatile. Piggyback melodies by replacing words and phrases, or sometimes we need to start over and allow our lives to feel “Unwritten,” so compose a whole new song for our bright new lives!   

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 O’Callaghan, C. & Grocke, D. (2009). Lyric analysis research in music therapy: Rationales, methods and representations. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 36(5), 320-328.

Silverman, M.J. (2009). The use of lyric analysis interventions in contemporary psychiatric music therapy: Descriptive results of songs and objectives for clinical practice. Journal of Music Therapy, 27(1), 55-61. 

Silverman, M.J. (2011). Effects of Music Therapy on Change Readiness and Craving in Patients on a Detoxification Unit.Journal of Music Therapy, 48(4), 509-531.