Music Therapy with Adolescents: An Interview with Dr. Katrina Skewes McFerran

Music Therapy with Adolescents: An Interview with Dr. Katrina Skewes McFerran

Adolescents are one of the most important populations served by music therapists. A teenager’s relationship to music holds immense therapeutic value, but can also be a tricky one to navigate. I find my own work with adolescents to be both rewarding and challenging. Serving a sensitive and impressionable generation is a privilege not to be taken lightly.

One resource that has helped my practice and understanding of music therapy with teens is the book  Adolescents, Music, and Music Therapy: Methods and Techniques for Clinicians, Educators and Students, by Dr. Katrina Skewes McFerran. As a music therapist, researcher, and educator, Dr. McFerran specializes in treating young people and has a breadth of knowledge to share about supporting adolescents with music therapy.

Can you share your story of how you came to specialize in music therapy with adolescents?

I honestly think it was the music that was the biggest draw card.  I have always been a pop music fan, and once it clicked that it would be possible to learn more of my favorite songs as a part of my work, I was enthusiastic.  That includes both contemporary pop, and classic hits that are still well known to young people.  Of course, this combined with opportunities that presented – I was the youngest professional in my workplace (a community based hospice care service) and so it was natural that I would be involved in providing bereavement care for children and teenagers. That led me to my PhD topic, which was exploring the experience of music therapy for bereaved teenagers, this time in schools.  A lot of things lined up to support this interest, but there was so little literature describing this kind of practice that I felt it was necessary to study it further myself.

What makes an adolescent’s relationship to music unique and/or important?

I think it is the combination of time and intense emotions.  Teenagers listen to more music than any other generation.  In addition, they are experiencing hormonal triggers for the first time, and for some young people, this can be a very emotional experience.  Combined with their desire to focus more on their peers than family, and to share in activities that help them identify with one another, it all seems to point to music really.  Suvi Saarikallio (see Laiho, 2004) wrote a great article in the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy that summarises the literature on this topic.

What are some of your favorite music therapy interventions to facilitate with adolescents struggling with depression?

Like all music therapists, I would need to get to know the young person/people before we could decide how we might use music.  So I am purposefully avoiding the word ‘intervention’ because I favor collaborative, mutually agreed therapy processes over expert-determined practices.  I am also placing the individual and their context as a more powerful influence over the potential of therapy than their diagnosis, since people deal with illness in different ways, and depending on the support networks they have available to them.  All that said, I do seem to use song writing more often than anything else.  The combination of original words and music seems to serve many teenagers well, and they can choose which they place more emphasis on – it may be essentially an electronic piece with a lyric riff, or it might be a whole narrative with a simple song structure sitting underneath it.  I wrote a whole book about this, called Adolescents, Music and Music Therapy (2010) if you’d like to read more about it.

Client preferred music is an important element in music therapy. What do you do when a client’s preferred music contains offensive or aggressive content?

This is a part of my practice that has changed a great deal in the past ten years, based on some research I have done on the topic, and will continue to do.  I used to adopt a Humanist approach, and to positively revere individual choices without question.  I have argued frequently that it is critical for young people to express their identity through their music choices, and that they should not be judged for those choices.  However, I have more recently adopted a more critical approach, where I push more to understand the connections that young people have with music.  I have discovered that some young people use music to ruminate and that the process can be largely unconscious.  This demands that the therapist consider a more psychodynamic lens, and to explore the projections that may be present.  This is just as likely to occur with a pop song as it is with a metal piece, but it makes sense that people use music to reinforce and strengthen the pathological aspects of their psyche, as much as it can be a potential resource to support positive growth.  Just look at what Hitler did with music.  Randi Rolvsjord’s Resource Oriented Music Therapy (2010) provides some fantastic explanations that balance more traditional humanistic and psychodynamic practices.

When working with a teenager who is resistant to treatment or extremely guarded, how do you approach him or her?

With deep respect, and removing my own need to prove myself as a therapist.  Andrew Malekoff (Malekoff, 2014), a social worker, beautifully describes this as leaving your ego at the door.  I truly believe that adolescents know when people are truly available to them.  They are surrounded by peers who are experimenting with different roles and trying on different ways of being in the world, that they sniff inauthenticity.  So I try and see what I can do for the young person. And sometimes, it’s nothing – they’re just not ready.  But I always start by asking ‘So, what kind of music are you in to?’ That’s a good beginning for most relationships.

What is the most rewarding part of your role as a music therapist working with adolescents in mental health settings?

I used to like the sheer honesty of young people and the faith they had in music.  It meant that they would share themselves authentically and I really enjoy mutually authentic relationships.  These days, as a researcher and a teacher, I enjoy listening to their perspectives about music, why and when it helps, and what we could do better.  Although sometimes I challenge their blind faith in music (McFerran & Saarikallio, 2013). 

What is the most challenging part of your role as a music therapist working with adolescents in mental health settings? And how do you deal with these challenges?

When they have to go back into home situations that are damaging and that they are too young to leave.  That breaks my heart.

What have you learned from your clients?

That music is more powerful when you are having the worst time of your life.  That music can be your best friend and your worst enemy, so sometimes you need help to work on your relationship with music.

What do you love about music?

That it provides opportunities to explore new dimensions of self and to discover capacities and emotions that were previously hidden.  Music affords energy, understanding and connection – so it creates ideal conditions for therapeutic encounters.



Laiho, S. (2004). The psychological functions of music in adolescence. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 13(1), 47-63.

Malekoff, A. (2014). Group work with adolescents (2nd ed.). New York: Guildford Press.

McFerran, K. S. (2010). Adolescents, Music and Music Therapy: Methods and Techniques for Clinicians, Educators and Students. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

McFerran, K. S., & Saarikallio, S. (2013). Depending on music to make me feel better: Who is responsible for the ways young people appropriate music for health benefits. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41(1), 89-97. doi:

Rolvsjord, R. (2010). Resource Oriented Music Therapy. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

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Songs For Gratitude

Songs For Gratitude

Despite how powerful and simple gratitude can be, it can also be easy to forget, especially in times when we need it most. When interwoven, music and gratitude can bring the beauty of life front and center, reminding us that in any moment there is something to be grateful for.

Here are three songs that provide a lens of gratitude for me.
What song reminds you to be grateful? 


Grateful by Nimo Patel/Empty Hands Music
(Download the song for free here)

Thank U by Alanis Morissette

Thank You by The Makepeace Brothers
(Lyrics and song download can be found here)

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5 Ways Music Therapy Is Used To Improve Mental Health

5 Ways Music Therapy Is Used To Improve Mental Health

Music helps us celebrate our greatest moments in life, and soothes us through the worst. It joins us in the car, at the movies, in restaurants, at the gym, and in simple moments with loved ones. Music honors individuals, cultures, trends, love, heartache, friendship, pain, and humanity.

Even inside of us, elements of music are constantly expressed through the rhythm of our heart, melody of our voice, and the tempo at which we choose to walk on the earth.

As an expressive art, music conveys our journey and reminds us that life is a shared experience. Some of the greatest music is not only an expression of human challenges, but also an attempt to overcome them, and heal.

As a science, music is measurable, and made of ratios and frequencies that our brain knows how to process before we are even born.

As a therapeutic tool, music is a powerful and practical way to reach the whole person. Music has the power to influence behavior, inspire emotion, and create harmony in all stages of life. Music therapy is a health profession that harnesses the artistic, scientific, and therapeutic components of music.

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” Research has shown that music therapy is a valuable and effective mental health treatment that can improve self-esteem, decrease anxiety, increase self-expression, increase motivation, and support emotional balance.

Music therapists are board-certified practitioners who integrate the power of music with a therapeutic relationship to help clients attain an improved experience of life. Music therapists serve people of all ages and abilities, and no musical skill on the client’s part is necessary to participate. Music therapy participation may be active or receptive, and an individual’s treatment plan is based on personal music preferences, goals, abilities, and challenges.

5 Ways Music Therapy is Used to Improve Mental Health:

1. Listening

Listening to live or recorded music allows clients to validate feelings and experiences, and process themes with a therapist through self-reflection and lyric analysis. Music listening is also a tool for refocusing attention for pain management, crisis intervention, and relaxation.

2. Creative Expression & Composition

Through singing, songwriting, composition, creative writing, or art activities, music is used to nurture creativity and healthy emotional expression. Creative expression can increase motivation and self-esteem, while increasing insight into feelings and identity.

3. Improvisation

Improvisation involves creating music in the moment for a spontaneous expression of feelings. Using instruments or voice, clients are able to freely express musically what may be difficult to put into words. In group settings, improvisation promotes bonding, community, and support through positive musical and social interactions.

4. Relaxation, Meditation, & Imagery

Live or recorded music is used to facilitate music-assisted meditation and relaxation practices. By reducing muscle tension and anxiety, music therapy interventions support stress management and mindfulness. In psychotherapeutic and transpersonal practices, guided imagery through music is used to explore inner experiences and promote integration.

5. Music as a coping skill

The use of music in daily life is explored as a way to cope with stressors and change, as well as improve quality of life. Learning to play an instrument as a meaningful hobby, participating in music as an alternative to drugs or alcohol, and learning to intentionally use music in daily practices helps increase motivation and encourages a healthy lifestyle.


“Where words fail, music speaks.” -Hans Christian Anderson


Music therapy may serve as a primary or complimentary mental health treatment, and music therapists often work in inpatient, residential, or outpatient facilities. Music therapists also work in private practice, and often collaborate with other mental health professionals.

I have worked with clients with psychosis who cannot even tell me their name, but can sing with me and enjoy a few minutes of reprieve from their hallucinations. I have worked with clients hospitalized after failed suicide attempts, who were able to find their first inklings of hope in a song lyric. I have worked with people piecing their sense of self back together after losing the most important person in their life, and finding the strength to persevere in the sound of an instrument. And I have worked with people facing their own death, using music as way to review their life and capture the unique qualities they brought to the world, and what they will leave behind.

I have also worked with clients in treatment for depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders, PTSD, trauma, sex addiction, personality disorders, schizophrenia, grief, and mood disorders. The beauty in this work is found in the process itself that is both personal and universal. We all know what music is, yet we all have our own relationship to it. It is this relationship that is nurtured and cultivated in music therapy in order to connect to collective themes and create transformative and unique internal shifts.


“The best music…is essentially there to
provide you something to face the world with.” -Bruce Springsteen


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Songs For Strength and Motivation

Songs For Strength and Motivation

I once worked with a client who said the song “Never Too Late” by Three Days Grace kept her from committing suicide. She said the song happened to play on her iPod at just the right moment to change her mind. When we listened to the song together, her sad eyes lit up and some source of strength inside was again awakened. 

While music does have a way of coming to us when we need it most, it is also helpful to have songs readily available. I often hear about songs that people turn to that help them stay sober, deal with adversity, push through the last mile of a marathon, or just get through a tough day. 

A motivational boost may be as easy as pushing play, however, the degree to which a song is inspiring is up to the listener. What music motivates you? Here are a few that work for me, which I also use in music therapy sessions to address motivation and perseverance.

Is there a song that can give you a boost of hope, energy, or willpower when you need it?
What songs have you used in your music therapy practice to motivate others?

Share your ideas in the comments below.


The Fire by The Roots:

3 Things by Jason Mraz


Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers


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