I became aware of harp therapy before I even played the harp or was an occupational therapist. I was fascinated that the harp was being used for healing in health care settings.
I realised the benefits for myself when I got my first harp, I found it soothing and found I could use it to reduce my own anxiety when I was feeling anxious or uptight. I recognised my breathing and heart rate went down when I started playing when I was feeling like this.
It seems that it was well known in the ancient world that the harp was beneficial for health and healing. In 1500 BC music was a science taught and studied by Pythagoras, music was used to heal the sick, he taught students to use notes, chords, and melodies to induce physical responses in the body. Pythagoras believed that music could change behaviour patterns and accelerate the healing process.
In the Old Testament book of Samuel there are 46 references to King David’s use of the harp as a healing instrument. The use of the lyre by King David to help reduce King Saul’s anxiety and anger is well documented in the Old Testament.
Fast forward to 1741 and Bach was writing the Goldberg Variations – 32 harpsichord pieces, for Count Kaiserling who needed ‘keyboard works with a sufficient soft and lively character and a constant sameness of the fundamental harmony to enable him to sleep’
Harp therapy is well established in the USA, there are a few training programmes, and harp therapists are employed in hospitals and hospices. There is evidence to show that harp therapy can reduce pain and anxiety, and lower racing heart and breathing rates. It seems like we’re relearning the lessons from the past.
These days harp therapy is done in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, day centres, cancer centres, learning disability settings, mental health units and in the community.
Therapy harps are small and lightweight, and have a strap so can be played standing and walking around facilities. Smaller harps started to be made around the 1970s and it was at this time the harp started to be used therapeutically. Large numbers of overtones (variety of tones) are produced when plucking the vibrating strings of the harp which produces the resonance and soothing sound that people enjoy.
The harp music will be delivered therapeutically to create an individual experience and offer some respite from the routine of the day for the client. The music is made personal at the chair or bedside for clients to support them with whatever physical, mental, emotional or spiritual difficulties they are dealing with.
Every interaction with a client is unique and will be suitable for that moment. During a visit a client may watch, sing or hum, have a go on the harp or close their eyes, I respond to the client by doing what seems to be beneficial for them at that time.
Harp therapy is not a performance, there is no set pieces to be played. Familiar and improvised music can be used to meet the needs of the client. While playing I observe the clients breathing, body movement and facial expressions and any sounds they may make and tailor my playing.
I aim to provide a soothing space for deep rest, provide distraction from health or environment and reduce stress as the body relaxes and breathing settles. Familiar songs can stimulate memory, and provide joy to lift mood. The feedback from clients, family and staff is all positive and the soothing tones defiantly change the atmosphere.