Teen Series #1: Movie Soundtrack

I’ve had some pretty interesting sessions with my teens. Throughout the summer and beginning of fall, I’d been playing around with different ways to build rapport, gain my clients’ trust, and encourage participation. With my specific population, they are very hesitant to actively participate in anything like instrument exploration or play, singing, and even lyric analysis. During the first handful of individual sessions, I couldn’t ask my teens many subjective questions without them shutting down (even “what about this song do you like?”). This really limited what we could do. The following intervention is one of the first ones that yielded active participation and awesome insight from each of my teen clients.

The prompt for this intervention was pretty extensive. I explained that the client was going to act as both the story designer and music director of a movie, and they would be creating a movie soundtrack for a story that they told. I asked them to think about a story that they wanted to tell, and gave them some time to think. I then broke down the process into parts (a storyboard) for the client, so they just focus on one piece of the story at a time. I showed them a visual representation of how the story would go, explained each piece, and drew connections to movies that they know.

The outline I created is as follows:

  1. Introduction of the main character – theme
  2. Event
  3. (Introduction of secondary character)*
  4. Conflict
  5. Event
  6. (Conflict)*
  7. (Event)*
  8. Event
  9. Resolution 

*I added these for one 16 year-old client who is very insightful and ready for more abstract and complex tasks

The actual intervention progressed piece by piece. I would say something like “Okay, so we need to introduce the main character. Tell me about your character.” As the client talked, I wrote down as much as I could. I asked as many follow-up questions as I could think of, including things like “How old is he/she? What does he/she look like? What’s their family like? Where do they live?” I was asking questions for two reasons: 1) I wanted to inform my own decision making process when selecting music for them to choose from, and 2) I knew that the more information I got from the story, the more I’d learn about their needs/wishes/thoughts, etc.

After they had exhausted the piece we were discussing, I would ask what they thought the music should sound like. In the case of the theme music, I would say “How does the music sound when the character first comes onto the screen?” Sometimes the clients would say they didn’t know, and sometimes they’d have an idea or a direction to point me to. This is where I used my own musical training to draw some conclusions. Based on what they had told me about their character and the direction they wanted to go, I would play three pieces from a Spotify Playlist I’d already prepared. I use a categorization system to help, especially as I’ve continued to add music to the playlist (I view it as an ongoing project). Here is an example of my reference sheet:

Happy: First Day (0:50); Eve; Thief

Sad: Angela’s Ashes; Lacrimosa; Message from Home; Katniss; Jacob’s Theme

Conflict: Barracuda; Thrust; Nevsky (1:50); Station Inspector

I have a lot of cross-categories to help me keep track, including: happy, sad, conflict, small event, big event, calm, tense, strings, electronic, atmospheric, etc. I would recommend just creating the categories in a way that helps you; I just used the sheet as a quick reference to make decisions as quickly as possible with the large amount of tracks I have in the playlist.

Note: I used pieces without words only, with the intent of allowing the client’s subjective understanding of emotion to guide us. I recommend that you create your own playlist using pieces from soundtracks that you are familiar with; this makes the categorization easier and  the selection process quicker. 

Together, the client and I would find a piece that suited the piece of their story (in this case, the theme music for the primary character). I used their reactions and an ongoing dialogue to gauge the fit of the piece to their story. For almost each piece, I asked them to close their eyes if they felt comfortable, imagine the character (or piece of the story) they had just described, and let me know if the music matched what they were seeing.

I did this for each part of the storyboard. I would ask them about the next piece of the storyboard, pose as many follow-up questions as possible, ask if they had anything else to add, what they thought the music should sound like, then played three selections for them to pick from. I often had to guide their storytelling, just because sometimes they got ahead into the conflict or next piece, or they’d get off topic, etc. I used the discussion to really hone in on the emotional aspects of the story or character that they wanted to highlight with the music. A lot of what I was doing verbally was trying to help them connect to the emotions the character was feeling, as well as break down the presented problem (conflict) into manageable pieces that could be resolved with music later.

After the client had decided on each piece of music, I put it in order in the playlist and played it back for them. While the music played, I retold their story, using the exact phrases the client and I had used in discussing the story. Afterwards, I started the discussion by asking how well the music fit their story, what they would change if they could, and what the process of matching music to the story (or emotions) was like for them.

There were some interesting things that came out of this intervention. I’ve done it four times, and each time, the main character’s gender matched that of the client telling the story. All four stories had an element of desire in the story; there was a piece, if not the entire story, that really seemed to be something that the client was yearning for. Interestingly, none of the stories were the clients’ own – these were not stories of what they’ve been through. These were stories of what the clients wanted. Only one client was able to realize the importance of the story she was telling and how it reflected her own desires. I could tell that the other clients either weren’t ready to  make that connection or didn’t want to talk about the connection, so we discussed the process of connecting made-up emotions to music instead.

I have found this intervention to be really helpful in building rapport and beginning some of that deeper emotion work. I also found that it influenced my work with the individuals because it helped focus my attention on where they were emotionally, as well as showed me what the clients want moving forward (sometimes it was a big house with a happy family, sometimes it was a happy relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend, etc.).