Music therapy is still a lesser-known form of therapy, alongside other creative arts therapies such as art, drama, and dance. To learn more about music therapy, we interviewed Kadri, our counselor and music therapist, who works with children with a range of needs from our office in Berlin and online. Kadri shared with us the power of music, the nature of music therapy, and her work supporting international families in Berlin and beyond.
Music therapy is a tool that can support children with mental health difficulties through expressing emotions through music or other creative activities where words lack or feel too difficult. Though music therapy, children can start to give meaning to their thoughts, feelings and emotions to create connection, relieve anxiety, regulate emotions and improve relationships.
Interviewer: Dominique, Linden Client Services Coordinator
Interviewee: Kadri Arula - Counsellor and Music Therapist
Dominique: Hi Kadri! To begin with, can you briefly introduce us to what music therapy is?
Kadri: Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions that support the child’s cognition, communication, and emotional well-being. Music therapy works within a therapeutic relationship and addresses the individual needs of the child, depending on their specific goals. At Linden I work with international kids and their parents/caregivers from the ages of 4-12. However, music therapists support people of all ages and any musical ability.
Dominique: How is music used in the sessions?
Kadri: There are a range of techniques music therapists are equipped to use. These may include songwriting, listening to music, singing, movement, and playing musical instruments. Techniques are carefully chosen by the therapist depending on the child’s needs and preferences and goals for sessions. These may be to develop self-awareness and self-confidence, to learn coping skills for emotional well-being, to alleviate anxiety, or to support communication and social skills. For example, we may focus on emotional expression, helping the child understand and identify their emotions in a safe space to better understand themselves and their needs. Equally important is working closely with parents/caregivers and teachers to support the child in all aspects of their lives.
Dominique: Can you give us an overview of who you work with?
Kadri: Certainly. I often work with children facing challenges such as adapting to a new environment after moving countries, transitioning to a new school, learning a new language, experiencing difficulties in social situations, or dealing with other neurodevelopmental challenges. My approach involves assessing the child's specific needs and developing a tailored plan that incorporates music interventions to support them in reaching their goals.
Dominique: What are some of the musical instruments you might use in a session?
Kadri: Guitar and voice are my two absolute favorites! Both of them provide ample room for play and experimenting with sound, creating a safe space for creativity, turn-taking, communication, and play. Additionally, I like to use smaller instruments, including the ocean drum, xylophone, tambourine, and singing bowls. Kids love exploring the different instruments and their sounds!
Dominique: What does the research say about the benefits of music therapy?
Kadri: Research tells us that music activates all parts of the brain, supporting cognitive development, executive functioning, and emotion processing. It can also boost our immune system! With the help of a music therapist, music is skillfully chosen, and techniques are used to support the child’s individual therapy goals, which is the essence of our training.
Additionally, music can make engaging with mundane tasks more enjoyable. For some children, music might be intimidating at first, but we work with them to take small steps, allowing them to engage in play at their own pace to discover the joy behind it. Music then becomes a tool in supporting and developing the child’s self-esteem and confidence.
Dominique: Can you give us an example of a music therapy session with a child?
Kadri: Absolutely! I can share a recent real-life story about one of my clients. To maintain anonymity, I'll refer to her as Matilda (name changed). She is an 8-year-old girl grappling with significant emotions.
Matilda had been having difficulties at school, including hitting other children, lying, and displaying signs of anger. Her parents, uncertain about managing these behaviors at home, reached out to Linden.
Matilda loves drawing and singing, activities she frequently engages in at home. After meeting with her parents, we set therapy goals to support Matilda’s emotional expression and regulation, coping with big emotions, and assisting her parents in learning various techniques for use at home.
In the first session, I introduced Matilda to the room. She was quite shy at first, but with a bit of encouragement, she started to explore the different instruments in the room. She was especially curious about the guitar and the ocean drum. Throughout the music-making process, I tuned into and shared her emotions. Initially, the play was subdued but as we continued, she grew more at ease expressing herself through the music. I modelled this on the guitar, and she visibly enjoyed herself, establishing a growing comfort and connection with me.
In the following sessions, we began incorporating various music interventions, in addition to playing. For instance, we wrote a song based on her favourite tune, engaging in a conversation about anger and specific situations where the emotion arose. This song evolved and was used during challenging moments. We collectively decided to share the song with her family, enhancing her sense of support in managing anger.
Intermittently, we held parent sessions to discuss Matilda’s progress in therapy and the best ways to support her at home. We also addressed difficulties noticed by parents regarding school or home life and explored supportive strategies.
When we all felt like Matilda’s goals were met, we reduced the weekly sessions to fortnightly and were gradually able to bring the sessions to a close. Through these sessions we were able to establish a safe therapeutic relationship to process Matilda’s difficult feelings and to give meaning to them at first in a form of creative expression, and later adding words to it. Working closely with the family was important in supporting Matilda in her home and school environment too, giving parents appropriate tools and support for emotional expression and regulation.
Dominique: Thank you for illustrating the work so vividly! I’m curious, could music therapy also be used online?
Kadri: Absolutely! Music therapy can be held online as well. Because of the nature of online work, we won’t be able to play music together, but we’ll be able to still incorporate creativity into the sessions by listening to music, analysing lyrics, having musical movement breaks or doing song-writing by using different music-making programmes. This could be especially beneficial for teen clients, experimenting with electronic music or coming up with rap lines. There is no one way of doing music therapy, and I always follow the client in what they are interested in or figuring out together what their interests are.
Dominique: Any tips you can give to our readers about how to use music for mental wellbeing?
Kadri: I’d love to! Here are some of the ways you can start to use music for mental wellbeing with your child:
Create a playlist together
Engaging in a shared experience with your child can support emotional well-being and foster a sense of security. Creating a playlist together can be a great way of doing that. First, you could take turns in coming up with different songs for the playlist. This will help strengthen your connection, learn about each other, and make it a fun experience. During the moments of having had a difficult day or wanting to spend time together, you can put on this playlist and just listen to it or engage in other activities whilst you have your favourite music in the background. You can even come up with creative titles for the playlist!
Try vocal breathing
When you try this with kids, you can model the technique beforehand. Start by deepening your breath, closing your eyes if that feels comfortable. You can place one hand on your heart, the other one on your belly. When you feel comfortable enough, start letting out sound on the outbreath. It might feel funny, weird, or uncomfortable at first, but just try to stay with it. The more we incorporate sound into the breathing movement, the more we create a connection with ourselves. It’s okay if it doesn’t go as expected the first time round! It will take a couple of times before getting the hang of it.
Put on the child’s favorite song and sing it out loud
Choose a song together that your kid enjoys listening to. Then sing it together! These moments of shared experience can mean a lot to our kids, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes. Singing out loud helps create a connection between the mind and the body, releasing feel-good hormones and helping us ground during stressful moments.
Move while listening to music
Again, you may choose a song together to listen to. To help choose appropriate music, pay attention to whether your child is feeling anxious or whether they have a lot of energy to spend. Accordingly, choose music that is relaxing without too many changes and slower tempo or when feeling like releasing energy, choose a more upbeat song. Either it’s slowly moving or dancing together, it can support your child with understanding and regulating their emotions in a non-verbal way.
Play music together
Incorporating dedicated playtime into your busy schedules to create consistency and for your child to know that you are there for them. Because rhythm is especially beneficial for our cognitive development, drums and smaller percussion instruments can be especially useful for kids. Playing the small rhythm instruments together can make it fun while also expressing and letting out the emotions your child may be holding onto when thinking that it might not be safe to express them. It is about equipping your kids with tools they can use in their daily life to help them feel more at ease.
Since music activates all parts of our brains it can support our cognitive, emotional and physical wellbeing, support learning and boost resilience. If your child is going through a difficult time, you can be there to support them by sharing these experiences with them.
Dominique: What do you love most about your job?
Kadri: What I love most about my job is that music is accessible to anyone and everyone, and through music, we can start to connect with our emotional world, giving it meaning and putting words to it.
American Music Therapy Association. (2006). Music therapy and young children. Retrieved from https://musictherapy.org/assets/1/7/MT_Young_Children_2006.pdf
Trimble, M., & Hesdorffer, D. (2017). Music and the brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation. BJPsych international, 14(2), 28–31. https://doi.org/10.1192/s2056474000001720
About the author:
Kadri is a counsellor and a music therapist from Estonia, experienced in working with international clients of all ages. She has worked in mental health settings from day centres, international school settings to forensic settings and private practices. She holds a Master’s degree in Music Therapy from Roehampton, University of London.
Kadri specializes in neurodiversity, anxiety and depression, going through life transitions and difficulties in school environments. She works within a multidisciplinary approach, meaning including parents/caregivers, teachers and other professionals into the work, offering the best support available for the child.
When not in sessions, Kadri enjoys playing the piano, writing her own music, going for long walks or swimming when the water is warm enough!