The Benefits of Harp Therapy

I very much enjoyed introducing people to Harp Therapy at last month’s Health and Healing Market. After the session, Ann of Relief from Pain kindly invited me to write a blog post explaining a little more about what Harp Therapy is and how it can be of benefit.

What is Therapeutic Music?

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 Neuroscientist

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, 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!

Therapeutic Harp

The harp has a long history as a therapeutic instrument: it was used for healing in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Ireland. Indeed, the future King David soothed Saul’s soul (try saying that quickly) with his harp. The harp’s status as a healing instrument can be attributed to several factors, including its particularly resonant sound and pure harmonics, its wide pitch range (which maximises available frequencies) and its long decay (which gives the frequencies time to do their work). It is not surprising, therefore, that there are a number of currently available programmes intended to train therapeutic harp practitioners to serve in modern clinical settings, such as hospitals, hospices and private practice.

Harp at the Healing Market

The harp is used in clinical settings in two main ways: first, its music affects change by the process of entrainment – for example, the listener’s breath or heart rate slows to match the music, or their emotions shift to the mood of the piece. The second way involves applying specific frequencies from the harp directly to the desired part of the body via speakers installed in a vibroacoustic table or chair. In both, the harp player tunes in to the needs of the patient and then plays whatever is needed to produce a beneficial change in their physical, emotional, mental or spiritual state.

My own interest in Harp Therapy came about because I am a professional harpist and a qualified Gong Practitioner. I have played in healthcare settings over the years and I’ve witnessed some strong therapeutic reactions to the harp: I’ve seen previously non-responsive dementia patients come alive at the sound of an old favourite tune and I’ve seen the calming spell the music wove in a children’s intensive care ward. Eventually, I decided to formally train as a Certified Healthcare Musician with the International Harp Therapy Programme.  I chose the IHTP because they take a wide-ranging view of what constitutes therapeutic music. Whilst their main focus is training harpists to play in hospital and hospice settings, they were also quite happy for me to focus on my own personal interest: therapeutic music for groups.

I play music for healing sessions, meditation groups and yoga classes; in anxiety-triggering environments, such as hospitals and prisons and in care homes. I have also devised a therapeutic harp session based on the Ancient Irish tradition of the three strains of healing music: sadness, joy and peace. This was what brought me to the Health and Healing Market.

Get Involved

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 advice 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?