Music Therapy With Houseless Individuals
By Meagan Moore, MusicWorx Intern
Edited by Theresa Kwong, Communications Consultant
For the purpose of this blog, I will use the term houseless and homeless interchangeably. Current literature utilizes the term ‘homelessness,’ however people described as homeless are not necessarily without homes.
Homelessness is not simply a state of having no home. Somerville (1992) describes homelessness as being multidimensional – impacting one’s psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Unhoused individuals often suffer from chronic stress, mental health problems, and substance use disorder. While economic issues are among the most critical factors contributing to homelessness, non-economic factors such as racial disparities, mental health and substance use, and domestic violence play a role in homelessness (NCL, 2021). The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates nearly 600,000 people experienced homelessness in 2022. More than a quarter of those experiencing homelessness include families with children (USHUD, 2022).
I was raised to view people experiencing homelessness as just that: people. While there are individuals who choose a nomadic lifestyle, I believe it is important to recognize that more often than not, houseless individuals are victims of circumstance. It is this belief that has led me to seek ways to support homeless individuals through music therapy. Since beginning my music therapy internship, I have had the opportunity to work with adults and families experiencing homelessness. While current research on music therapy with this population is limited, research over the last several decades suggests that music therapy can be an effective resource to support emotional expression, interpersonal connection, self-esteem, and coping skills (Jurgensmeier 2012, Iliya 2011, Williams 2013, Kelly 2017). Using evidence-based practices, personal experience, and guidance from music therapy supervisors, I have compiled a list of several interventions that may be used to support the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness.
Group drumming is an excellent tool for empowerment, improved self-esteem, and group cohesion. Drums require no prior musical experience to play, which allows the intervention to be inclusive for all participants. During group drumming experiences, participants are encouraged to play a simple rhythm that is unique to them, but also fits into the rhythm of the group. This directive serves multiple purposes:
- Group drumming encourages individuals to play in a way that feels authentic to them. Participants can explore different rhythms, which activates creativity and can ultimately lead to self-expression through music.
- Group drumming also encourages participants to listen to the music of the group. Although each participant is playing an individual rhythm, listening to others allows each person to play in a way that is supportive to the collective sound. Supporting each other musically can serve to connect the group and create a sense of unity.
- Drumming can serve as a form of emotional expression without having to verbalize the emotions. Whether participants are feeling happy, frustrated, sad, or sleepy, those emotions can be conveyed safely through drumming. By providing a musical outlet for emotions, participants are offered a positive coping mechanism.
Songwriting is a powerful tool for self-expression, especially for individuals experiencing homelessness. While each person’s life journey is unique, there is often commonality in shared struggles and hardships. I have used group songwriting throughout my music therapy undergraduate education as well as internship. Here are a few tips that I would suggest when leading group songwriting:
- Provide as much structure and guidance as needed when leading group songwriting. As music therapists, it can be easy to forget that songwriting can feel foreign to anyone who has never written a song. Take time to explain the structure of the song and, if needed, offer binary options for direction (e.g. major or minor chords, slow or fast tempo). Providing lyric sheets with clearly defined song structure is also a helpful tool.
- Ask probing questions when the group has trouble creating new lyrics. When writing about a specific topic, it can be helpful to ask group members to describe an experience or an emotion associated with the topic. I find that allowing group members to share in this way often leads others to relate with what is shared, which can help the group move through creative blocks.
- Expect periods of awkwardness during the initial songwriting process. Group songwriting can sometimes lead participants to feel vulnerable which may bring periods of silence and uncertainty from group members. Given the music therapist is creating a safe space for creative exploration, the best advice I can give is to trust the process.
Learning a new instrument can be a great way to increase self-confidence and create a sense of accomplishment. Ukulele is an ideal option for several reasons. First, the ukulele has only four strings which makes forming chords easier than guitar. Second, many popular songs can be played using 2-4 chords, allowing a group to learn chords and utilize them in a song immediately. Third, ukuleles are lightweight and portable, making them easy to transport to music therapy sessions. Learning a new instrument also stimulates brain function, strengthening neural connections between the left and right brain. Below I have listed several song ideas that can often be learned in a single music therapy session.
- My Girl – The Temptations: This song can be adapted using C and F.
- Three Little Birds – Bob Marley: C, F, G
- What I Got – Sublime: D, G
- Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival: A, D, G
- Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash: G, C, D
Incorporating creative arts therapies into music therapy sessions can offer new avenues for creativity and self-expression. Mandala drawing to music may be especially effective for clients who are experiencing anxiety or sensitivity to sound, as it allows the brain to be engaged in the creation of the mandala while being supported by music as a background. Music options played during mandala drawing should be supportive of the needs of the group. This could look like playing soothing music if the goals include increased relaxation or playing more complex classical music to encourage expression. While there are many ways to incorporate mandala drawing into a session, here is one suggestion for individual participant drawings:
- Place various coloring utensils on a table/desk within reaching distance of group members
- Provide each group member a paper with a blank mandala circle printed in the middle
- Introduce the mandala drawing and give instructions for the intervention. Instructions may vary depending on the needs of the group but make sure to provide clear directives for how long participants will be drawing and the intention behind the experience (i.e., are you focusing on a specific emotion or are you drawing freely).
- Begin playing music as a background, either live or pre-recorded. Again, choose the music that best supports the needs of the group. In my experience, using several songs consecutively gives enough time for participants to complete their mandala.
- Give participants time markers of how much time is remaining for drawing
- Once the mandalas have been completed, invite the participants to title their drawing
- Invite group members to share their drawings and allow time for participants to discuss what each person has created
Example of a blank mandala on an A24 paper:
Iliya, Y. A. (2011). Singing for Healing and Hope: Music Therapy Methods that Use the Voice with Individuals Who Are Homeless and Mentally Ill. Music Therapy Perspectives, 29(1), 14–22. https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/29.1.14
Jurgensmeier, B. (2012). The effects of lyric analysis and songwriting music therapy techniques on self-esteem and coping skills among homeless adolescents. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Kelly, B. L. (2017). Music-Based Services for Young People Experiencing Homelessness: Engaging Strengths and Creating Opportunities. Families in Society, 98(1), 57–68. https://doi.org/10.1606/1044-3894.2017.9
Lawrey , Lauren, et al. “Unlocking Homelessness, Part 1.” National League of Cities, 27 July 2021, https://www.nlc.org/resource/unlocking-homelessness-part-1/.
Somerville, P. 1992. “Homelessness and the Meaning of Home: Rooflessness or Rootlessness?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 16(4): 529–539.
United States, Congress, OFFICE OF COMMUNITY PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT, et al. The 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, 2022, pp. 4–4.
Williams, K. C. (2013). Open group music therapy workshops with homeless adults: A case study. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.