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Lyric sheets: Yes or no?

Here’s a clinical decision that I make on a regular basis: should I use printed lyric sheets or not? This seemingly simple question can actually have a few different answers depending on the setting.

The short answer is this: for most of the group and individual sessions I do with older adults, I do not use lyric sheets, but there are occasions when I do.

Why not use lyric sheets?

One of my main goals is to encourage interaction among group members. This is harder to do when everyone is staring down at a piece of paper. In fact, I’ve seen it happen that as soon as I pass out lyric sheets, all conversation stops as everyone hurriedly looks down at their paper.

It is easier to shape the musical experience in the moment without lyric sheets. When the lyrics are printed, people tend to follow them straight down the page as printed – I’ve seen this especially to be true for people with dementia and mental disorders like schizophrenia. What if it would work better to repeat a verse or a line to highlight someone’s musical expression or to enable people to join the group process? I want the flexibility to make that happen without throwing people off.

Visual cues are nearly impossible to give when people are following lyric sheets. Again, this makes it hard to shape the group’s music-making in the moment.

People with vision impairments have difficulty with lyric sheets and may not be able to use them at all. Many of my clients have vision problems, and many of them are uncomfortable when presented with a tool that they can’t easily use – it increases their level of anxiety and might cause them to withdraw from the group, just when engagement is the goal. The same problem happens for people who can’t read. I’d rather eliminate that barrier to participation when possible.

When to use lyric sheets

Of course, there are situations when lyric sheets are beneficial. Here are a few:

I use lyric sheets when I want to focus on the lyrics. If we are doing a full-blown song discussion as a group, it would probably be helpful for the group members to have the words in front of them at some point during the discussion.

Lyric sheets are also helpful for unfamiliar songs with lots of words. For example, I had a Motown-themed series of sessions a while back, so I did have lyric sheets available for the songs we sang together as a group. Even with unfamiliar songs, though, depending on the group and the focus of the session, the lyric sheets may not be necessary. During the Motown sessions, in one group of clients with dementia, I was looking for them to respond to the music by interacting with me and moving their bodies more than singing all the words to a particular song. Even though they couldn’t sing all of the words, they could respond in a musical way, more so than they would if they were focused on the printed words on a page. Whether to offer lyric sheets is a decision best made in this instance by knowing the group well.

Sometimes the goals of a particular music therapy intervention will call for the use of lyric sheets. In rehab settings, for example, it may be a goal to improve visual tracking skills or to assess and treat right- or left-side neglect. Singing with lyric sheets may be the perfect intervention. The same goes for young children practicing pre-literacy and literacy skills. Again, this is a clinical judgment made by the music therapist based on the needs of the clients and the goal of the intervention.

Considerations for using lyric sheets

If you do use lyric sheets with your music therapy clients or in a music activity of another variety, here are some tips:

Use a clear font and a large enough sized print for the needs of your group. 

Consider durability. Are these lyric sheets to be used once or multiple times? Will these lyric sheets be in the rain or crushed at the bottom of a bag? How will your clients handle the sheets – are rips or creases likely to happen? Should you bind or staple or laminate your lyric sheets?

Consider what adaptations are needed. You may want to add symbols or pictures with the lyrics, or use bold/italics/underlining to highlight particular words. For a lyric discussion, you may want to number the lines so that group members can easily refer to particular lines in the text. Stephanie of The Rhythmic Mind wrote this post about an awesome adaptation for songbooks to be used by patients with aphasia – it’s a great example of how to adapt lyric sheets to the needs of your clients.

Decide when to introduce the lyric sheets. Depending on the intervention and the needs of the group, you may want to distribute lyric sheets immediately, or you may wait until you’ve played the song and started a discussion. You may even wait until the end of the session for someone to take a copy of the lyrics to look back on later. When I pass out lyric sheets for group singing, I always offer them to everyone in the group, even if I suspect they do not want them or cannot read them – this is not the time to point out someone’s limitation in front of the group.

Be aware of copyright restrictions. Song lyrics are protected by copyright, and copying them in written form may be an infringement of copyright. Limited personal use is probably okay, but you should definitely not distribute lyric sheets widely or sell them. For more information on this topic, check out this post on copyright infringement and fair use.

Lyric sheets can be a help or a hindrance, depending on how you use them with your music-making groups. How do you use lyric sheets (or not) in your work?

4 comments… add one
  • All really great points here. When I run groups I think of the same things. I used to have song books with 25 or 30 songs in them. I found the lyrics to be distracting, too. I still liked that they had choices in the table if contents, though. This led me to start using song title lists (in really big print for the older folks). This helped get things going if the group was ever at a loss for songs.

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      Hi Erin,

      That’s a really good point. I use song title lists, too – they’re actually a standby intervention with my older adult groups. Thank you for mentioning that!

  • Rachelle, I’ve never thought about the pros and cons of using sheets of lyrics but you are so right! I’m not a music therapist but I can see the implications for this transcend the boundaries of music therapy, too.

    Thanks so much for pointing this out! I’m so pleased to have found your blog . . . . I think Roia Rafayen sent me your direction.

    Have a great week!

  • Thanks for the shoutout, Rachelle! These are all great points – especially the point about how using lyric songsheets in the wrong situation can decrease social interaction. Thanks for posting!

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