Add as bookmark

Using the Harp for Healing

by Christina Tourin(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 135 - May 2007

Ted, a 17 year-old boy with a terminal brain tumour, had been in a coma in the hospital for weeks. I sat next to his bed, playing songs on my harp that I thought he might recognize – music by Incubus and Sarah McLaughlin – since I knew that comatose patients often respond to familiar tunes. But nothing happened.

As I prepared to end the session, I stood in silence, my fingers resting on the harp strings and my mind in the space of Inclusive Attention, thinking, ‘What is willing to meet me?’ My hands began playing Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

By the end of the piece, Ted’s mouth was moving in rhythm with the song. The ICU nurses summoned his parents. Within an hour, Ted had opened his eyes and mouthed the tune’s lyrics.

I returned to Ted’s bedside regularly with my harp until the day he was airlifted to his hometown.

That breakthrough experience with Ted is just one example of how harp therapy has become so effective in hospitals, hospices, birthing centres, rehabilitation clinics, long-term care facilities, dental offices and a host of other venues, to support patients’ healing. It has emerged as a complementary treatment of choice in the last two decades throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, Australia and Europe.

An Ancient Tradition

The use of music for the purpose of healing is actually very old. The Ebers Papyrus, dated to about 1500 BC, documents the use of incantations by Egyptian physicians to help heal the sick. In the Mystery Schools of Delphi and Crontona in ancient Greece, music was a science, taught and studied by the famed musician and mathematician, Pythagoras. He taught his students ways in which certain musical notes, chords, and melodies could induce physical responses in the body. Pythagoras believed, and is said to have demonstrated, that music could not only change behaviour patterns, but also accelerate the healing process. The harp as an instrument of healing is referred to in the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament. There are 46 references to King David playing the harp.

Marsilio Ficino, a Renaissance writer, wrote in De vita coelitus comparanda that music produced a healing effect by “affecting the senses and at the same time the soul.” Many music treatises from the period make reference to the power of music and the different characteristics of musical modes and their effect on human emotions.

Why Harp Therapy is so Effective

For centuries, the beneficial relationship between music and healing has been well documented.

Recently, a study conducted by the San Diego Hospice (CA) based on 300 patient questionnaires concluded that harp music helps 71% of patients to breathe more easily and reduces anxiety levels in 84% of patients. In addition, 63% patients report reduction in pain when harp music is present. The International Harp Therapy Programme is officially affiliated with the San Diego Hospice in San Diego, California and the Planetree Hospital System, worldwide ( The hospitals and hospices serve as training centres for both groups and individuals, as well as for employment opportunities. Our practitioners serve the patients in a multitude of therapeutic ways, including teaching patients how to play the harp.

With the value of harp therapy no longer ignored, health providers point to why customized harp music is beneficial. Although harp practitioners are not trained to diagnose and change behaviour, their goal is to promote the patient’s emotional, physical, mental and spiritual healing – with harp music as the medium. Harp therapy embraces the spiritually intrinsic value of music.

Therapeutic harp practitioners use all size harps but especially a small portable harp at the bedside. They are not performers; they are facilitators. This does not mean, however, that technique is ignored. Technique provides the harpist the ability to play very softly, especially for people in the dying process. As practitioners play they may offer interaction with the harp, which can be very empowering for the patient. The interactive empowering process is truly dynamic.

Isobel Stamford CTHP and Psychology Degree Student from Fife, Scotland, gives us this account of a resident with learning difficulties at a further education college. “My overall purpose was to enhance communication and self-expression by using creative music-making in my weekly sessions. Jane’s specific learning difficulty was related to Down’s Syndrome and, on first meeting her, she appeared to be very quiet and insular, preferring to keep herself both creatively and socially detached from the rest of the group. Having worked with the group for several weeks however, small changes began to occur. Jane’s love of music came to the forefront and she was the first to volunteer to play the harp. Over the weeks, it became apparent that she found it easier to express herself as part of a group through music-making. She showed confidence in her contribution, and her sense of joy was quite apparent. The most profound moment came after one particular music-making session. During this session, each individual within the group had taken a turn at playing the harp while the other group members spontaneously, without direction from me, used their percussion instruments to create music to accompany the harp. There was a real sense of individual empowerment in everyone’s harp playing, along with a tangible sense of group sharing, bonding and non-verbal communication. The real impact of this session was confirmed when we all went to the 800 cafeteria afterwards – instead of separating herself from the group as usual, Jane joined the group’s table for the first time. The following week, she joined the group again. It was also reported that after my sessions she had approached the head of department and asked a question. This was the first time she had ever done this in the years she had attended the college. Whilst these may seem small steps for some; for Jane, they have been huge.”

Another notable effect of harp therapy is the way the music calms and relaxes individuals involved. It touches a special place in patients’ hearts, and can bring comfort to family members.

Julie Darling CTHP from Yorkshire, UK played harp for a man who was recovering from treatment for cancer. “He told me he had held so much anger and fear inside him, for most of his life. While I was playing the harp, he slipped into a deep meditation and had a vision of who he was meant to be, and of the power within him of his creative spirit. He had been afraid of what he saw, but knew it to be true. He had been afraid to come into his power, and take responsibility for using his creativity in his life, for his own healing and in his healing work with others. He is now taking the first steps towards wholeness – through singing and music.”

Creating a ‘Cradle of Sound’

But probably the greatest achievement of harp therapy is the ability to provide a ‘Cradle of Sound’ for the individual patient. Practitioners explore each patient’s situation creatively – and then design a soothing musical environment to enhance their quality of life.

This personal music is a blanket of love that matches and caresses the patient’s mood, breathing patterns, musical style preferences and resonant tone. The Cradle of Sound helps the patient achieve relaxation, reduce anxiety, and reach a state of wellbeing that elevates mental, emotional and spiritual health.

Western music is built on seven types of scales, or modes, which establish moods. Harp practitioners choose a mode that creates a setting that is helpful to the patient. For example, the Ionian mode (which listeners recognize as a major scale) is light, sweet and gentle – especially useful when the harpist is playing for babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care unit. The Dorian mode has a ‘grounding’ or ‘rooted’ quality, and practitioners use it to help patients who are trying to get out of bed, are disoriented, or for those with ADHD.

Breathing Patterns
By watching a patient’s breathing, the practitioner can match it with a rhythmic metre (2/4, 4/4, and 6/8, for example). Playing along with the patient’s breathing pattern allows his rhythm to regulate, and where appropriate, slow to a more desired level.

Music Preferences
Harp practitioners master a repertoire of tunes in 12 musical genres – Patriotic, Children’s, Classical, Opera, Ethnic, Country/western, ‘Oldies’, Popular, Broadway, Hymns, Celtic music and Holiday songs. They are also skilled in improvisational techniques. Knowledge of songs that were popular during a person’s youth or courtship years can be a valuable tool in communication, as in the case with therapy for Alzheimer’s patients.

Resonant Tone
Practitioners work to find harp tone frequencies that cause sympathetic vibrations in the patient’s body. They may start by determining the patient’s basic tone of his speaking voice. Then, cycling around the musical circle of fifths, the practitioner finds the correct relationship of tones that resonate with that individual. Using these tones allows the patient to experience the connection of interrelated moving energy between two sources – himself and the music.

The International Harp Therapy Programme

Practitioners who offer harp therapy services vary widely in expertise and methodology. Some musicians simply perform by the bedside. Others use passive therapy, with little patient participation, as a vehicle for healing. The most sophisticated therapeutic harp practitioners recognize the need to combine the science of physics with the spirit of music when treating the whole patient. They connect moods, breathing patterns, musical preferences and resonant tone and, where appropriate, involve the patients interactively, giving them an opportunity to play the harp.

Advanced training is required for the individual to develop these kinds of skills and knowledge, adding to their compassion to serve patients successfully. The International Harp Therapy Programme was founded in 1994 to meet the growing need for trained practitioners. In this year-long course, students study Music Development, Counselling Skills, Music Therapy issues, Self-care, Resonant Kinesiology, Inclusive Attention, Hospital Etiquette, medications and procedures, the Dying Process and Subtle Energies.

Material is covered in two one-week modules, held at various locations in affiliated countries. The remainder of the course is conducted through video study, readings, and a practical internship. Currently, more than 400 students have completed the Programme and are now active practitioners across the globe.

Students come from two backgrounds:

Harpists – Those who already know how to play the harp draw on their musical skills while developing therapy and counselling techniques. In many cases, they learn that ‘less is more’ in this type of playing – that while harp therapy is not a musical performance, it is about the beauty and simplicity of pure tones creating harmony.
Caregivers – Individuals with bedside experience learn to bring a musical dimension to their care giving. They already understand ‘patient need.’ Although these students may take longer to develop harp repertoire and musical confidence, they catch onto improvisation quickly.

Without exception, those drawn to harp therapy share one common trait: they are deeply compassionate humanitarians. They find tremendous fulfillment in helping others hold onto the spiritual realm of their life’s path. One of the biggest challenges a harp practitioner faces is not having enough time to meet with everyone who requests her services.

Certified Therapeutic Harp Practitioner Bethan Hughes from Llanharan, Pontydun, Wales, serves with the US and UK military troops. Over 10,000 troops have heard her music in ten different war zones around the world. It is being used with military support mechanisms, combat medical support, field hospitals and dental hospitals, brain injury centres, individual platoon/ squadrons/regiments/ companies, military and Naval hospitals, in recovery, rehabilitation, with psychotherapists, military chaplains and the evacuation of wounded soldiers. Comments on her CD, The Tranquil Harp, include:

“Your gift will go a long way to heal many of the wounds we soldiers carry physically, emotionally and spiritually, far beyond what medicine ever could. War is an ugly thing for anyone. Our spirits will never be the same. By sharing your gift of music with us, you are truly an angel of the battlefield.”– CPT Mendoza, Kuwait (army) Medical Commander.

“By the second song, I was totally relaxed and out. That’s the most relaxed that I’ve been since I got here. I’ve also been using the music to get to sleep and get through the night. I’m much more rested now. I take care of many soldiers’ emotional and spiritual wounds; your harp music will help to ease some of their pain from here.” – CPT Brunson, Middle East (army) Military Chaplain.

Evolution of Harp Therapy

Healing with the harp has been a natural part of the instrument’s evolution. From ancient hillsides to concert halls, through its contemporary journey into the homes and hospital rooms, the harp captures the hearts and souls of those who need relief, hope and enlightenment. As awareness of the therapeutic value of this magical instrument grows, so will its cradle of sound bring increasing healing and comfort to the hearts of humankind.

Further Information

To find out more about harp therapy or The International Harp Therapy Training Programme, locate a practitioner near you, or learn how your facility can benefit from harp therapy, visit The International Harp Therapy Programme’s official site: For a creative and fun experience, play virtual harp online by visiting


  1. Jija said..

    Thanks for the post. This is very good article and very informative. I should try to remember those information's.

« Prev Next »

Post Your Comments:

About Christina Tourin

Christina Tourin is a second-generation harpist who began playing harp at the age of four. She received Music and Education degrees from the University of Vermont (BS) studied harp at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, and at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and holds a music therapy degree from Arizona State University. She served as harpist for the Vermont Symphony, New Haven Symphony, and off-Broadway, theatre productions, performed at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont – the home of the Sound of Music original family – for 17 years. She taught public school music for 20 years, and after training at the Steiner Institute, taught in Waldorf schools in both Vermont and England. She has been instrumental in the revival of the folk harp since the early 1970s. In 1982 she founded the Scottish Harp Society of America, and currently is the director and founder of the International Harp Therapy Programme affiliated with San Diego Hospice. She is also the founder of the World Harp Orchestra, and the author of books, including Harp Therapy – A Cradle of Sound. Her artistry can be heard on 14 CD recordings available from and She may be contacted via ;


    Aromatherapy creams & candles. Heal naturally No side effects. Holistic treatments, powerful courses

  • radical spirituality

    UK publisher of rejected knowledge in areas of esoteric thought and radical streams of spirituality.

  • Super Patch Wellbeing

    Super Patches – a most revolutionary advance in wellbeing strategies in the history of medicine

  • June Sayer Homeopathy

    Training Academy Homeopathy Nutrition Reiki, Distant Learning. Diet, Health Screening, Detox, Stress


    Professor Sheik Imam is a famous professional leading African Healer who works with powerful spirits

top of the page