• A young girl plays harp. (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)Source: Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images
For thousands of years, the harp has been soothing the afflicted. Today, it’s producing some astonishing results in treatment.
Jim Mitchell

14 Aug 2018 - 10:24 AM  UPDATED 14 Aug 2018 - 10:24 AM

In Mister Tachyon On The Edge Of Science, the eponymous invisible man explores the concept of sound healing and music therapy.

One of the most fascinating forms of music therapy comes in the heavenly sound and vibrations of one of the world’s oldest instruments, the harp. Live harp therapy has found success in treating an exhaustive array of maladies from chronic pain, to multiple sclerosis, respiratory disease, AIDS, cerebral palsy, cancer, nausea, lymphedema, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, dementia, autism, behavioral and learning disorders in children, and even over-stimulation in children by digital devices.

It’s a celestial soundtrack for life, from pregnancy, birth and early life, to palliative care and the transition to death.


How does harp therapy work?

The history of the harp being used around the world to heal can be traced back some 3,000 years. It was played in the healing temples of Ancient Egypt, by French monks in the 11th century for death rites, and African Griots to heal communities, among several other countries.  

“This therapeutic use of harps was based upon ancient observations that the vibrations emitted by the harp possessed unusual power both to calm and to energise humans and animals,” writes harp therapist and researcher Dr Diane Schneider on her website Harp of Hope.

But the extent to which the playing of a harp can purportedly alter a person’s physiology, temporarily or perhaps even permanently, is astounding.

The theory is that within our bodies, sound vibrations are bouncing around as our atomic components move, and these vibrations can be influenced by the external sound vibrations of a musical instrument. It’s based on the process of entrainment where one object’s vibration pattern can be altered by a similar but stronger vibration of another.

According to a study on harp therapy for hospital patients released in 2015, “the vibrational patterns of the patient’s body and mind may be influenced by the intentional sequencing of tones and rhythms of the harp vibrations, which leads to changes in how symptoms are experienced.”

The study found that the quality of life measures of fatigue, anxiety, sadness, relaxation, and pain were significantly improved by harp therapy in 30-50 per cent of patients.

The harp could be particularly effective because of its many strings, generally numbering from 25 to 47, and the playing of multiple strings according to the study, produces “a wide range of vibrations and overtones (harmonics) that can resonate in a complementary way with the complex and vast range of cellular vibrations in the human body and mind.” These vibrations enter the body through the central nervous system, bones, muscles and even skin.

In 1991, the technique was advanced with the introduction of vibroaccoustic harp therapy (VAHT). Put simply, it’s a “musical massage” where live harp music is amplified through a vibrotactile device like a sound chair or table which allows the patient to detect sounds and vibration by touch. The patient is asked to focus on the pain in particular parts of their body and the vibrations can provide relief for pain by not only relaxing the patient but by stimulating circulation in the body.


Good medicine

The results of harp therapy can be astonishing. Featured on an episode of Beyond Chance, multiple sclerosis sufferer Lisa Fisher spoke of the miraculous effect playing the harp has had on her life. Diagnosed in 1994 with the chronic neurological disease, an active and happy woman rapidly became debilitated and depressed, a crushing low when she found herself crawling to her bedroom, no longer able to walk up the stairs.

But after taking up the harp, Fisher’s health soon began to improve. Five years later when she had expected to be incapacitated in a wheelchair, the mother of three found herself with the energy to work full time, do line dancing and aqua aerobics, and was able to reduce her medications drastically. “Playing the harp was a big catalyst of positive energy in my life,” she said.

Fisher was introduced to harp playing after hearing about Healing Harps, a group of musicians whose severe disabilities were significantly improved after taking up the instrument.

One of Healing Harp’s founders, Dr Ron Price had experienced the miraculous power of the harp many years earlier to treat the symptoms of his cerebral palsy.  As reported by The Chicago Tribune, it wasn’t long after he started playing that Price’s symptoms began to dissipate with brief respites of a regular nervous system. Teaching the harp and later going professional, he noticed that the more he played, the more his nervous system improved, before eventually his cerebral palsy symptoms disappeared.

The fascinating catch? Like his band mates, he needed to play regularly, otherwise his symptoms would return.

And the key to this amazing transformation could be the thymus gland. “One theory is that it's because the harp rests on the shoulder near the thymus gland, which is believed to play a strong role in the auto-immune system,” writes The Chicago Tribune’s Mary Laney. “The vibrations of the harp may calm the gland into healthy productivity.”

But as if all of this wasn’t staggering enough, Laney relays the case of the executive who had successfully had two consecutive brain surgeries to have tumours removed, only to be diagnosed with a third that was inoperable. Enter Price who taught her the harp, and the tumour had disappeared within a year.


Bringing peace as life begins and ends

The harp is spanning and embracing the lifecycle, its gentle sound proving a balm for the soul at both ends of the spectrum. One study found that harp therapy during in vitro fertilisation embryo transfer significantly decreased anxiety in patients, positively affected acute stress levels and resulted in an increased pregnancy rate.

Harpists have been used to soothe women in labour, and in neonatal intensive care, live harp performance provides a gentle, restorative soundtrack for premature babies in an often-stressful hospital environment. The benefits of the harp’s sound include lowering a baby’s heart rate when upset and aiding feeding ability.  

Fast-forward to the final ebbs of life, and the presence of a therapeutic harpist beside a bed of the dying provides a different kind of comfort. Dr Schneider says this kind of harp therapy is highly specialised, requiring strong improvisation skills to meet the changing and challenging medical and emotional needs of a client.

She sees a therapeutic harpist “not as a performer but as a companion on this part of the person's journey. Harpists provide beauty and great comfort at a time when a fuller quality of life is missing in other familiar ways.”

Whether you’re a fan of the angel’s instrument of choice or not, it’s hard to think of a more peaceful and cathartic score for life’s end.

Turn up the volume on Mr Tachyon as he explores healing through sound in the quirky science show Mr Tachyon On The Edge of Science every Monday night on SBS VICELAND and streaming at SBS On Demand:

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