The Songbook: Sunshine on my Shoulders

Posted: May 13, 2013 in Music Therapy

Song #3 for The Songbook is Sunshine on my Shoulders, a 1971 song by John Denver.

I have to say that this particular song is at least in my top five favorites of all-time, if not in one of the top spots.  It’s just so beautiful…the imagery created by the words, and Denver’s voice just make this song heart meltingly wonderful.  But that’s my opinion.  Let’s be objective here.

When doing lyric analysis on this song with some clients, I’ve asked if they think it’s a happy or a sad song.  Sometimes they’ll say happy, sometimes sad.  I can see where everyone is coming from – it has a bittersweet quality that Denver was so good at.  But oftentimes, it’s the line “Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry” that convinces people it’s a sad song, even though the first line is “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.”  Sometimes it’s hard to understand how you can have conflicting expressions of emotion.  From an early age, we’re taught that we smile when we’re happy, and we cry when we’re sad.  But sometimes we can cry when we’re happy as well.

I remember when I figured this out for the first time.  I went to go see ET in the movie theater as a kid.  This is the first time I remember seeing a movie in an actual theater.  Anyway (spoilers for ET ahead), there’s a scene where ET has seemingly died.  I remember weeping because I was so sad.  Then, ET started talking and moving and acting silly, and I was laughing, but I was still crying.  And it hit me…I could be happy and still be so filled with emotion that it needed to leak out my eyes.

I like this YouTube clip because of the interview John Denver is giving right before the song (and not so much the saxophone solo).  He mentions that the “out-of-doors” was always a great inspiration for him, because it’s a shared human experience and something we can all relate to.  And I think that keys right into why Sunshine speaks to me.  I don’t necessarily like sunshine (I burn), but I do like being outside and enjoying the wonder of creation.

The song, too, is about wanting to share a feeling of happiness:

If I had a day that I could give you
I’d give to you a day just like today
If I had a song that I could sing for you
I’d sing a song to make you feel this way

If I had a tale that I could tell you
I’d tell a tale sure to make you smile
If I had a wish that I could wish for you
I’d make a wish for sunshine all the while

In music therapy, I think this song can be a great starting place for a discussion about emotional expression, particularly things that make us happy.  Lyric analysis can be used to dig in to why you would want to share your feelings with others – good and bad.  The chord structure is fairly simple, so a group could be brought together to play together on various tone instruments easily, and it’s slow enough with a consistent chorus that it can be a singing exercise as well.

Thanks for reading!  Hope you have a sunshiney day!


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