On Top of Spaghetti

October 22, 2011

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of going to a Weird Al Yankovic concert. Between the costume changes (which we were distracted from with vintage Weird Al video footage on giant screens behind the stage), polka medleys and crazy dance moves, I can’t think of anything I would have changed.

It was amazing. I grew up listening to his albums, and have continued to admire and respect him over the past decade or so for such gems as “The Saga Begins,” “Amish Paradise” and “White and Nerdy,” and more recently for songs like “I Perform This Way” and “Party in the CIA.”  He is brilliant, if you care to check out his work, and read his life story, if you’re not already familiar.  Anyway, the fantastic concert last week prompted me to write this post about…

The song parody!!

Since the beginning of western music, there have been people writing parodies, whether they be humorous parodies of serious songs, serious parodies of regular songs, or everything and anything in between.  If you look up “Parody Music” on Wikipedia, you’ll learn quite a bit, but I won’t bore you with that information in this forum.

I grew up in a house where creativity with themes, lyrics and melodies was encouraged.  I can recall my father (a great pianist and songwriter) writing a parody for my mother for her 40th(?) birthday to the tune of “Mame,” and it went to gain many accolades from the neighborhood adults present at that party.  In addition to that and other personal inspirations, my dad also helped produce musical comedy versions of “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar,” “MacBeth,” and “The Scarlet Letter,” at the high school he taught english at two decades ago.  I was raised among parodies, and have continued to enjoy them to this day.

In my work, I do quite a bit of songwriting.  I facilitate songwriting groups and exercises comfortably, and there are always great results.  With the onslaught of easy recording that comes with present-day technology, it’s also really easy for me to record a group’s or individual’s composition on my laptop, and then burn copies of the song they write to disk for those who want one.  We write blues songs, original non-blues songs and most of the time (because most of my clients are non-musicians, and also have dementia) we write parodies.  A couple of my favorites are “You Are My Lifeline” (to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine,” about a credit card), “Lonesome Tear” (to the tune of “Tennessee Waltz,” written by an elderly man about his deceased wife) and “An Invitation” (to the tune of “Mame,” about a rich and handsome man, inviting a woman he likes, “Babe,” to a fancy dinner party).  I love songwriting with my clients, particularly when there’s an already existing tune to work with (I’ll write about my adventures in original songwriting in another post).


Songwriting Group:

Materials needed are: Dry erase board, dry erase markers, an eraser or tissues, a sense of humor, flexibility.

I usually begin these groups with some sort of rhyming exercise to get people’s “brain’s moving,” and then, if a group needs me to, I suggest an already existing song we can use as a background for our own lyrics.  We sing the “real” song through one time, and then I have the group suggest topics we can write about.  I write the suggested topics on the white board and we hold a (very democratic) vote to decide which one to use. After a topic has been chosen, I create an “idea box” in the bottom corner of the white board, where we brainstorm different things that may apply to our topic.  Especially when people have dementia, it helps a lot to have the ideas written down so they can see what they’ve already said.  When we’ve exhausted our “idea box,” we begin the song.  I play only the tune to the first line of the song and ask if anyone has an idea for a “poetic first line,” which is only sometimes successful.  If no one has an idea right away, I usually will write down the first line of the “real” song, keeping it the same, except for a couple/few words which I leave blank.    This is a good way to start, and usually, the clients will begin to have more ideas the further we get in the song.  Starting is the most challenging thing, but if all else fails, just write down the original lyrics and keep some words blank.

One of my favorite funny parodies my clients came up with (on their own)!

If you’re not used to leading these groups, and you’d like to try writing a song with a group of clients, a great song to start with is “My Favorite Things,” a song with lyrics that are also a list.  You can use the ideas from the idea box (getting input from the clients about which words and phrases should go where) so the clients don’t have to come up with entire phrases and ideas, which can be difficult.  Most of them have never written a song in their lives, so even if you think what you’re doing is elementary, they will usually think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.  In these groups, if I don’t know the clients very well, I will usually assure them that we can rhyme certain phrases if they want, but that we don’t have to.  It frees their creative energy if they know there aren’t any rules, or any right or wrong suggestions.  For those of us who are particular about lyrics in our own songwriting, it can be difficult to help clients write a song that doesn’t rhyme.  We need to get over it, because it’s not about us.  And I mean that in the nicest way 🙂

When the song is finished, I have the group suggest possible titles for our song and we vote to make the decision.  If possible (it usually is in the facilities I work at) when working with groups that change session to session, as in an inpatient setting, I then type up the completed song on an available computer, crediting those who were present for the group, print out the song, and give everyone a copy.  If the clients are independent enough to own and be able to operate a CD player, I will often record all of us singing our completed song, and then burn each client a copy of it.  They usually are thrilled to be able to actually keep a concrete representation of their newfound songwriting prowess.  Sometimes, when working with a more cognitively “well” group, songwriting can take more than one session, and that’s okay.   It’s a great way to have a group work together to create something, though this type of songwriting can obviously be adapted for individual sessions as well.

Finally, I always encourage clients to write their own parodies outside of group sessions.  It’s a fun way to be creative, and it can make us feel good to share our parodies with others too.  A well elder I work with, S., shared with our group a song she wrote about her favorite food, Kugel, to the tune of “My Favorite Things,” a few weeks after our group songwriting experience, and it was hilarious.  She was proud of herself, and the group really enjoyed it.

At an AL for people with dementia I used to work at, my songwriting group (which met once a week, and was comprised of people with early-mid stage dementia) completed over thirty original songs, and twenty-something parodies over the course of our work together.  I put all of our songs in booklets, and every now and then, we’d go back and sing the songs we wrote.  They were always so proud to have  accomplished something so creative.  A quick tip: if you create booklets like that in a dementia-specific setting, leave out the client’s names, because people get very confused when they see their name on something but don’t remember being a part of the group.


One of my favorite  songwriting exercises (exercises don’t take up entire sessions, just five or ten minutes) I use frequently, I call “The Great Day Song,”  This is to the tune of “It’s a Good Day,” by a singer from the 1940’s named Peggy Lee, and I use themes like weather, holidays, seasons, travel and friendship (among others) to find out what clients would choose to do on whatever great day we’re talking about.  The first line of a verse is the client’s suggestion, and the second line, we leave open for rhyming suggestions from other group members.  Here’s my explanation of the exercise:

I can’t take credit for “Great Day,” although I might be able to take a bit of credit for it’s Northeast U.S. popularity among my students and colleagues.  I learned this songwriting exercise during my internship from a San Diego music therapist named Alice who was my supervisor at a Day Program for folks with dementia.  This exercise is always a hit, and it’s a good way to encourage socialization and support from peers, given the hilarious phrases people come up with.

If you don’t already use song parodies in your work (if you’re in a clinical music job) I strongly recommend doing it.  I also strongly recommend sharing already existing parodies with your groups.  If it’s a tune they know, with an “adjusted” topic that they can understand, they will probably get a kick out of the song, as I’ve found in using “On Top of Spaghetti” to introduce songwriting.

There are many other songwriting techniques and exercises I use but I’ll save them for future posts.  In the meantime, take some chances and write some songs!


2 Responses to “On Top of Spaghetti”

  1. I just learned some great techniques from this postign. Thanks so much for sharing and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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