Journal of Music Therapy, XLII (2), 111-122, ©2005 by the American Music Therapy Association.
Felicity Baker, PhD, RMT. “Themes within Songs Written by People with Traumatic Brain Injury: Gender Differences.”
By: Devon Fornelli
Review: This paper presents evidence that male and female music therapy clients express themselves in different ways and focus on different topics when communicating their emotions through the activity of composing or re-composing songs. Baker states that in previous research - Simpson, Simons, McFadyen (2002) - “the major challenge for people faced with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is reaching an understanding of exactly how the injury has affected their cognitive and psychosocial abilities”. Felicity Baker describes this in terms of the stages of grieving: where defense mechanisms obstruct the clients’ realization of the event’s effects with stages of retaliation and finally reintegration.
Therapists use song writing as music therapy intervention to address various problems including adjustment issues, and redevelopment of identity.
Previous studies have addressed the methods of therapy by analyzing the content; however, Baker’s research is the first to address differences in lyric content or song themes between males and females.
Baker credits previous research to discovering how men tend to use more problem-focused coping, and women tend to adopt more emotion-focused coping mechanisms. She claims there may be a benefit to problem-focused mechanisms versus emotion-focused coping mechanisms: “men are better off in some ways because of their problem-based viewpoint; however, when the situation is uncontrollable, emotion-focused strategies are more effective” (Baker).
Baker notes a study where Charmaz (1995) found that females tend to focus on (reclaiming?) their appearance more than men; men tend to focus more on reclaiming their past identities. Also, she refers to another study which found that females show more resilience and a greater ability to adapt compared to males, who are more likely to avoid the stressor (Weidner and Collins, 1993). [One possible explanation for this may be that males tend to ignore or are in denial of the existence of new challenges. She also notes that males are probably more likely to refuse help – this is something that I can relate to as a male who has suffered TBI]
Acknowledging the difference between male and female coping strategies, Baker poses the question “does songwriting assist males to access their emotions and improve their ability to cope and adjust?”
Some details worth mentioning is that observers noted that the length of time it took to compose a song varied due to the participant’s physical, communicative and cognitive abilities. This is understood given that clients with more severe trauma will have more obstacles and take more time to complete certain tasks.
In general the activities of songwriting in this research involved situations where clients either recomposed existing songs with different words or freely composed new songs.
The level of input provided by Music Therapists was not recorded, but it was related to the cognitive levels of the client.
The research involved three therapists practicing in different areas of Australia who worked with 31 clients in total. The result was 82 songs. Expressions and themes were categorized and rated on a chart. Data received from males was analyzed compared to the data received from females. The resulting analysis showed interesting trends across genders with respect to which themes were most commonly reported within participants’ songs.
Among the various data retrieved, it was concluded that females (29.54%) communicated messages more than males (29.9%). Also, females expressed more positive feelings towards others (12.29% vs. 7.44%)
For clients dealing with traumatic brain injury, self-expression of emotions is a vital step towards acceptance of their new situation. Therefore, females have an advantage in the sense that they arrive at the acceptance stage more readily than males.
Baker describes the problems associated with this research project: the number of males (21) versus females (11) is not an equal and accurate sample. As well, pediatric and adult clients were not represented in the female sample. Baker proposes that future studies could focus on clients’ psychological processes – stages of acceptance: denial, projection, avoidance…acceptance – to understand how clients deal with trauma. This could lead to understanding about particular stages where song writing would offer the most benefit.
Reflection: Considering the sample size, I am confident that Baker’s conclusions accurate. Though I do not have experience as a client or practitioner of Music Therapy, I can relate the finding presented to my own experiences as someone who continues to make adjustments in my life due to the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) I suffered in 1996.
Though this reflection is based on a mostly subjective experience, I believe my situation parallels Baker’s findings very closely:
I was lucky to find a friend from the opposite sex who had also suffered a TBI and for a period of time we met to discuss and share our experiences. Even though our injuries were quite different as far as the severity, we are functioning at a relatively alert/high level, and that at the time we were at different stages of recovery, I can see now how we were coping differently with our situations. Being male, I definitely focused on the problems (memory difficulties, changes in identity, etc.) and was in denial about my situation of recovery and identity as “Brain Injured”; whereas my friend was well on the way to accepting her new situation and objectively tackling issues that came up. She was also a lot more in tune with her emotional state than I was. Therefore, in my experience I have observed how genders deal with TBI differently.