New Collaboration with Songwriting with Soldiers Brings Music to Veterans’ Ears

“Congratulations, here’s your song. Your prescription is to listen to it every day for the next four weeks.” This might sound strange out of context, but not for the Veterans who recently participated in Home Base’s pilot study with SongwritingWith:Soldiers. This exciting new collaboration paired 10 graduates of Home Base’s two-week Intensive Clinical Program (ICP) with professional songwriters with a shared goal of using music to heal trauma. An initial pilot set the stage for future incorporation as one of the integrative health modalities that accompany clinical care at Home Base.

10 graduates of Home Base’s two-week Intensive Clinical Program (ICP) were paired with professional songwriters with a shared goal of using music to heal trauma

Home Base’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) consultant, Ron Hirschberg M.D., first discovered SongwritingWith:Soldiers (SWS) while attending “The Program for Music, Mind & Society” at Vanderbilt in 2015. He recalls being inspired by many of the presentations at the conference, but the SWS presentation struck a special chord. The concept behind SWS is simple: pair Veterans and Active-Duty Service Members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences. Since 2012, SWS has led more than 35 retreats and written more than 400 songs. Collaborative songwriting has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression, and SWS offers a unique path to helping soldiers, their families, and communities cope with the aftermath of combat duty and the challenges in returning home.

While music is widely understood to have healing powers, the use of the arts to support the treatment of stress-related mental health conditions among military and Veteran populations has only recently been on the rise. The evidence-based treatment offered to Veterans and Family members through Home Base’s innovative, two-week ICP is provided in conjunction with complementary medicine such as art therapy, yoga, and mindfulness training. Inspired by the SWS presentation, Dr. Hirschberg returned to Boston with a new mission: find a way to infuse collaborative songwriting into Home Base’s ICP.

After much planning and coordination, a pilot program was launched in September 2018 at Home Base’s newly constructed National Center of Excellence in the Charlestown Navy Yard. Local participants who had attended Home Base’s Intensive Clinical Program were invited to participate in this study. As part of the study, each of the 10 participating Veterans took part in a two-hour “songwriting intervention” session with a professional songwriter from SWS to create a unique song about their experiences before, during, and after combat. The conversations were casual, but the results were profound. In fact, Dr. Hirschberg was particularly struck by the level of trust the Veterans exhibited with the songwriters.

“The Veterans felt safe knowing the songwriters understood military culture,” he explained. “The lyrics are all co-written. It’s a true collaborative effort.”

The songwriters paid close attention to the body language of the Veterans as they told their stories – how they held their heads, how they paused while speaking – to identify specific phrases or words that were particularly meaningful to them.

To achieve this, the songwriters paid close attention to the body language of the Veterans as they told their stories – how they held their heads, how they paused while speaking – to identify specific phrases or words that were particularly meaningful to them. Consummate professionals, the songwriters were adroit in effectively – and respectfully – working with the Veterans to help tell complex, difficult stories.

Once completed, each song was sung and recorded in front of the Veteran – another part of the healing process. Finally, the songs were uploaded to USB devices the participants could wear around their wrists. Each Veteran received a “prescription” to listen to their song at least once a day for the next month. They were outfitted with Fitbit devices to record their physiological data (heart rate, number of daily steps, hours of sleep) throughout the process. Participants returned to Home Base after four weeks for a follow-up visit.

Dr. Hirschberg and Louisa Sylvia, PhD, Director of Health and Wellness, measured depressive and PTSD symptoms in the participants, as well as the Veterans’ ability to cope and adapt to stressors, to determine if the experience had increased participants’ ability to function and improved his or her overall wellness. Notably, participants reported a 25% reduction in their depressive and PTSD symptoms over the four-week study period.

Participants also reported experiencing a calming effect while listening to their song and found it very therapeutic to share it with their family members and friends. While it would be premature after just one pilot to make a concrete determination on the efficacy of the program, the experience was an overwhelmingly positive one for the 10 Veterans involved.

Complementary medicines – such as songwriting – often serve as powerful catalysts for opening avenues of communication, supporting dialogue, and resolving conflict. Home Base has already developed specialized offerings in wellness, mindfulness training, and Family support within the ICP, but Drs. Hirschberg and Sylvia are keen to incorporate music as well through continued collaboration with SWS.

“At SongwritingWith:Soldiers, we have seen so many positive outcomes emerge after our collaborative songwriting sessions — general relief, feelings of connection, hope — in addition to incredible songs,” said Mary Judd, Co-Founder and Program Director of SWS. “Now, through our research partnership with Home Base, we are thrilled to help study the effects of these sessions on a scientific level and ultimately help quantify the impact of music and positive psychology modalities to benefit our military community and families.”

Now that the initial pilot has been completed, the Home Base team will continue working with SWS to continue researching and planning future pilots. Prescriptive music needs science to move its value to the next level, and science benefits and grows from the validation of music as treatment. The hope is that this initial pilot is only the beginning of what will serve as a classic example of the perfect marriage of art and science.