For many of us, listening to music contributes to our wellbeing. The right music at the right time soothes, relaxes and uplifts us emotionally and spiritually, restoring us to harmony and equanimity. Music can also bring about physiological changes that have a positive effect on our body and mind:
“Music initiates brainstem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance and muscle tension, partly via noradrenergic neurons that regulate cholinergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission.” Daniel Levitin, Cognitive Psychologist and Neuroscientist¹
So, what type of music could be considered therapeutic? I was very struck by a comment I read once by pioneering sound and music healer, John Beaulieu. He bemoaned that many people had come to associate therapeutic music with the amorphous, ambient music commonly known as “New Age”. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with New Age music and, for some people, it can be just what is needed, that’s not always the case. For someone needing an injection of energy, for example, he considered that a good old boogie at the discotheque (the book was written in the 1980s ) may be far more therapeutic.
The same goes for the musical instrument itself. I would argue that, whatever the instrument, if the listener loves it, then it can be therapeutic for them. However, when you don’t know in advance who your listener/s will be, its best to play it safe. In this case, the harp is about as safe as you can get. I only ever met one person who didn’t like the harp – and he played the banjo!
Part of the therapeutic potential of music comes from musicians themselves. As Stella Benson, Founder of the International Healing Musicians Program, says: “Each musician has the propensity towards using music as a healing modality by tapping into his or her own natural compassion, passion and pure love for fellow human beings.”² Certified Healthcare Musicians – also known as Therapeutic Musicians – have taken this further still and undergone extensive training in the art of using music as an intentional tool of transformation.
Music as Service
“The music always centres me. It makes me feel less anxious, depressed and worried. It’s almost a spiritual experience and certainly very comforting.” Therapeutic Music Patient³
Therapeutic Music is not intended as entertainment. Rather, it is offered as a service. A Therapeutic Musician tunes in to the needs of the patient, client or audience and then plays whatever is needed to produce a beneficial change in their physical, emotional, mental or spiritual state. This is why live music is more effective than recorded music, for the musician can respond instantaneously to the needs of the listener/s by changing rhythm, tempo, key, mood, volume, instrument or switching between familiar and non-familiar music. For this reason, Therapeutic Music is considered to be non-intrusive and non-invasive as the needs of the listener are always central.
If you are a musician and interested in playing therapeutic music on harp, or your own instrument, then I would say, first, learn to tune in to your listener/s and try to intuit what they need in that moment. If you feel they need to be more relaxed, more energetic or whatever, then music will provide the way for them to get there. There are techniques to help you do this – Stella Benson’s book, The Healing Musician, is highly recommended. Ultimately, though, allow yourself to be guided what to play.
If you would like to give yourself the benefit of therapeutic music, then my suggestion would be to listen to whatever you are drawn to at the time. Give yourself permission to really immerse yourself in the music and listen. These days it is rare to completely give our attention to music unless we’re in the audience of a formal concert; it is usually just something we have going on in the background. Why not make it a regular practice to switch off, close your eyes and just listen to your choice of music for however long you need?
¹Levitin, Daniel This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession, 2008
²Benson, Stella The Healer’s Way Companion 2: Calming Music for Anxiety, 20014, page 12
³Therapeutic Music Patient Quoted in Roberts, Peter and Cox, Helen The Harp and the Ferryman, 2013, loc 778