Principles of harp therapy

The principles of the harp therapy I practice are set out by Christina Tourin, second generation harpist, music therapist and founder of the International Harp Therapy Programme in 1995.

See some harp therapy videos on our More Harp page.

I completed the International Harp Therapy Programme in 2016 and am a certified therapeutic harp practitioner with the National Standards Board of Therapeutic Musicians.  I undertake continuous professional development to keep my certification up to date.

The key principles of harp therapy are:

  • Matching the mood of the listener.
  • Matching the tempo with breathing rate and / or heart rate.
  • Playing in the key of the listeners resonant tone.
  • Playing the type of music that they like. 
  • Delivering the music in the way that they would like.

(Tourin, 2006)

“It is well established that fast-tempo and major-mode music tends to make listeners feel happy, whereas slow-tempo and minor-mode music makes listeners feel sad’ (Schellenberg 2012 p. 331).

A study by Franco et al (2014) with adults and children found that exposure to mood matching music improves cognitive performance and optimises cardiorespiratory regulation (Respiratory sinus arrhythmia – RSA) before and after the music. Conversely, exposure to mood mismatching music hinders cognitive performance and decreases cardiorespiratory regulation (RSA) before and after the music.

Using harp therapy we can improvise for the mood we find the client in and then adapt the music as the session progresses to meet the clients mood, or to enable another feeling.  As the client relaxes they are able to breath deeply which can increase oxygen in their blood stream.  Listening to preferred music can enhance cognitive resources due to the positive affect induced by listening to the music (Schellenberg et al., 2007, Thompson et al 2001).

“The promise of music-based treatments is that they are noninvasive, have minimal or no side effects, are inexpensive, convenient, and completely ‘natural’”  (Chanda and Levitin 2013).


Therapeutic harp music is ideally delivered for at least 20 minutes as this time period is thought to be the minimum to be effective to induce relaxation (Aragon et al 2002).

The rhythm of the music can be adjusted to that of heart or breathing rate to try to create desired physiological effect with entrainment. The best results are accomplished when using a rhythm similar to the human heartbeat, for example 60 – 80 beats per minute  (Aragon et al 2002, Chanda and Levitin 2013). This can lead to lower heart and respiratory rates and increased oxygen in the blood stream.

Noradrenergic (norepinephrine) neurons in the brain- stem and midbrain regulate the autonomic responses of heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, along with cholinergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission. Brainstem activation also mediates sensory and motor function through epinephrine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Simple musical properties, such as tempo, may therefore affect central neurotransmission underlying cardiovascular and respiratory control, motor function, and potentially even higher order cognitive functions, such as the setting of attentional filters (Chanda and Levitin 2013). 

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” (Chanda and Levitin 2013).


Aragon D et al (2002) The Effects of Harp Music in Vascular and Thoracic Surgical Patients. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 8 (5):52 – 60.

M L Chanda, D J Levitin (2013) The neurochemistry of music, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17 (4) 179 – 193.

Franco, F. et al (2014) Affect-matching music improves cognitive performance in adults and young children for both positive and negative emotions.  Psychology of Music 42(6) 869 – 887.  

Schellenberg, E. G. (2012). Cognitive performance after listening to music: A review of the Mozart effect. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health, and wellbeing (pp. 324–338). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.  

Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive per- formance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35(1), 5–19.

Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect.Psychological Science, 12(3), 248–251.

Tourin C (2006) Harp Therapy Manual: a Cradle of Sound, Emerald Harp Productions, Mount Laguna.