Counseling Today, Features

A Musical Chronology and the Emerging Life Song

Thelma Duffey & Shane Haberstroh February 21, 2011

Have you ever been driving along in your car, listening to the radio, and heard a song that completely took you back in time? All of a sudden, you remember what you were doing, how you were feeling and who you were with.

That seems to be a common experience for many people. In fact, just listening to a song can take many of us back to old sensations, excitements, fears and hopes. With a click of a button, we’re there.

Music is a medium long used by educators, counselors and other mental health professionals when working with children, adolescents, individuals, groups and couples.

Thelma’s experience

For as far back as I can remember, music has been an incredibly wonderful form of entertainment, comfort and fun for me. Many of my memories and associations are recalled simply upon hearing a song that was playing at another point in time. Some of my favorite pastimes involve listening to live music, both in large and small venues, and spending a day at home with my music or the radio. I enjoy all sorts of music and feel especially connected to people when music is part of our shared experience.

Professionally, I have used music in my counseling practice for more than 20 years with people of all ages, and I regularly introduce its use to graduate counseling students at our university. However, I first started using music in my work more than 30 years ago in an area where many children identified as “at-risk” faced unique educational, cultural, economic and social challenges. At the time, I was a Title I teacher in a junior high school where a number of 14- to 16-year-old students were reading below a third-grade level. In addition, many were challenged by intergenerational culture clashes, English-as-a-second-language issues and poverty. Others struggled with the effects of gang violence and the untimely deaths of siblings, parents and other family members.

Unfortunately, the books appropriate for these students’ reading levels were far more elementary than the students’ experiences or worldviews. Finding resources that could simultaneously engage students, inspire their interest and afford them dignity was challenging. As a culminating project for my master’s degree, I developed a reading resource manual that used popular music to help the students develop literal, inferential and evaluative reading skills. We’d work in small groups and listen to the songs. Using the manual as a guide, each person would respond to a series of developmentally aligned questions and engage in readings and discussions based on the music.

We had such fun using music they had selected — music that was important to them. Using this method, a number of the students developed reading skills they could then transfer to their work in the content areas. Interestingly, a valuable by-product of this work was the cognitive and emotional processing that took place. It was apparent the music helped students connect with one another and helped bring context to difficult life experiences.

Later on, through my work with children with chronic and terminal illnesses and their families, I was again reminded of how fragile life is and how wonderful it can be when people connect with music that inspires, comforts, entertains or relays feelings for which we may not have words. That was when I first began developing an intervention I refer to as A Musical Chronology and the Emerging Life Song.

Shane’s experience

I have been a musician for the past three decades, so music has been central to my self-expression as well as to my connection with others. In my professional life, I have done a good portion of my clinical work in addiction treatment centers. There I discovered that music was a powerful tool for expression, communication and connection among the clients.

In my journey of playing music with others, I have found that the experience can transcend individual performances to create powerful moments. Other times, playing music can feel frustrating and stilted. It is in these moments when, despite my best efforts, the music feels flat and empty.

When artists are able to create musical works that connect with the human experience, those are the songs that resonate with us. I think the best songs — the ones with which we connect — speak to our inner experiences. When performed with authenticity, these songs seem to capture the subtle textures and profound moments in our lives, encapsulating and preserving powerful moments. The musical chronology speaks to these moments.

With today’s availability of libraries full of music, clients can easily access songs that are representative of their pasts, presents and futures. A few years ago, Thelma introduced me to the musical chronology, and I have used it in my practice, particularly with adolescents. I find that most clients are eager and excited to share this aspect of their lives. When listening to songs and sharing their chronologies with me, they express their experiences, losses and hopes more fully.

What is a musical chronology?

A musical chronology is akin to a musical scrapbook. The chronology uses meaningful music to help clients connect with feelings, thoughts and memories, identify relevant life experiences and bring perspective to these experiences. One goal of the chronology is to help clients appreciate the good they have experienced, while also coming to terms with experiences or situations they have left unreconciled. The hope is that by remembering the good, clients can give context to their experiences, and by coming face-to-face with difficult hurts while accessing a more realistic and compassionate lens, they will be better able to put those hurts to rest.

We have used music as a chronology with individuals, couples and groups in our practices, and we have presented variations of this process at conferences and workshops that address issues of grief and loss, addiction and intimacy development. We have also used music in this context with reminiscence, people invested in creating meaningful life reviews and older adults — in particular those seeking perspective on life events.

More recently, Catherine Somody, a longtime counselor and educator, conducted a phenomenological study, “Meaning and Connections in Older Populations: A Phenomenological Study of Reminiscence Using A Musical Chronology and the Emerging Life Song.” Participants ranged in age from 74 to 88. In describing her experience with the chronology, one participant said, “It helped me live a little better with missing my sister. … She and I sang together. We were four years apart; we sang together when we were kids. In fact, just this morning I was talking to her out my kitchen window. I can actually do that now.”

“The power of music and the chronology to evoke emotion was expressed by all participants,” Somody noted when discussing her research. “All reported increased self-awareness and reconnection with many important memories and values.” She went on to add, “The recall of happy memories added to the enjoyment of the process. Recall of hardships contributed to feelings of pride and accomplishment. Some participants connected with feelings of regret.” And consistent with the chronology mission, “Many connected with the experience of forgiveness and ’opened the door to hope.’”

The chronology process

Stage 1: Have clients select music that speaks to them or has been meaningful to them throughout time, and then have them arrange the order chronologically to illustrate their personal story or “life themes.” The counselor and client discuss the use of music to revisit historical events and experiences. The counselor explains the process and, together with the client, determines the structure for its use in counseling. This includes discussing the number of songs per session, session length and format. The process is flexible and can be adapted to client needs and levels of development. Clients create their anthology using CDs, audiotapes, flash drives or iPods/iPhones. They may also include lyrics. The counselor can assist with any of the steps in this process. We generally do.

Stage 2: The second step involves using the musical selections as vehicles to revisit clients’ experiences. In conjunction with a counselor, clients can reconsider limiting belief systems or perspectives that interfere with their ability to reach their goals. The chronology provides opportunities to revisit attitudes born from difficult experiences — attitudes that influence or reinforce our expectations of life, ourselves and one another.

Stage 3: After compiling the music, clients select a song that represents their current life experience. This song serves as a reality check, one designed to help cut through denial, bargaining or other protective strategies. Although most of us can “move on” in life after difficult experiences, it is more challenging for us to move forward, meaning to carry with us a humble respect for and understanding of our humanness and the humanness of others, regardless of the outcome of our efforts. During this step, clients can begin to consider their experiences from an alternative, more compassionate and productive perspective. It is here that clients consider possible adjustments, try them on and begin to come to terms with life as it is.

Stage 4: The fourth step involves selecting a song that represents what clients hope to experience in their futures. This song (or songs) serves as a metaphor for their counseling goals.

Speaking volumes

Music speaks of our world and communicates our unique mix of cultural and personal experiences. While we may identify with important music from a particular genre, many of us also connect deeply with music from different generations and cultures.

Abel, 52 years old, relayed that bands such as Air Supply, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Guess Who brought back memories of his youth spent in a small Guatemalan village. Despite his current struggles with medical and financial problems, he recounted the classic rock of his youth with a soft smile and a twinkle in his eye. For a moment, he was 17 again. When we connect through music, we can know each other better because of it.

On the horizon, exciting links appear to exist between listening to music, brain functioning and expression of emotions. One example involves using the musical chronology with neurofeedback training. Neurofeedback, a form of biofeedback, uses real-time electrical signals from the brain, known as electroencephalography (EEG), to address problems associated with EEG frequency dysregulation. “The theory behind neurofeedback suggests that too much or too little of these EEG frequencies, like beta waves, can lead to maladaptive behaviors,” advises counselor and neurofeedback consultant Julie Strentzsch.

Combining neurofeedback with the musical chronology may help counselors and clients work through past losses. Neurofeedback data could be used while processing the emotions associated with clients’ musical selections. We are excited about using these modalities in combination to harness the power of music and modern technology.

At the same time that Gordon Lightfoot’s “Carefree Highway” speaks to the experience of looking back to the people and places we used to know, Abba sings “Thank You for the Music.” And for the time when we appear to be traveling, like the Wallflowers sing, with “One Headlight,” our music can help us revisit past experiences more thoughtfully. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and countless other music artists tell stories to which many of us can relate — stories we can have fun with and borrow from

as we integrate our own circumstances. And for those of us who simply like music, at the end of the day, and in the words of Billy Joel, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”



Thelma Duffey is professor of counseling and department chair at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She was the founding president of the Association for Creativity in Counseling, serves on the American Counseling Association Governing Council and serves as editor for the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. Her book, Creative Interventions in Grief and Loss Therapy: When the Music Stops, a Dream Dies, is published by the Haworth Press. Contact her at

Shane Haberstroh is associate professor of counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is past president of the Association for Creativity in Counseling and associate editor for the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. Contact him at

Letters to the editor: