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Sophia explaining the harp to Betty. Photo credit: Pictures by Ann via Foter.com / CC BY

It is likely that the soothing and rhythmic sounds of the harp have been employed to nurture, calm, and support people in distress for many thousands of years without being called Harp Therapy, as it is today.   “The word “therapy” comes from the Greek “therapeia” meaning “a service, an attendance” which, in turn, is related to the Greek verb “therapeuo” meaning “I wait upon.” Therapy was (and is) a service done to the sick” [1]

It is well known scientifically that music has an effect upon the body.  The vibrations are felt physically, and can incite or relax,  as well as cause emotional responses such as happiness or sorrow.  The field of vibroacoustics focuses on this relationship between sound frequencies and anatomy as an aspect of healing work.

While many types of music and musical instruments can be valuable in a therapeutic environment, the harp, in particular, is the instrument of choice for many music therapists and exclusively for those who practice two particular healing modalities: harp therapy and music thanatology.  So what are these two emerging healing fields that make use of the unique features of the harp?

Harp Therapy[]

“Harp therapy may be provided at home or in a clinical setting. The setting largely dictates what size harp can be used, however a variety of sizes of harps may be used to provide therapeutic harp music. When therapeutic harp music is played, recipients may receive beneficial effects such as increased relaxation, improvement in sleep, decreased pain and anxiety, stabilization of vital signs, and improvement in mood. An end-of-life music vigil can also help a patient to achieve a peaceful transition.

Some harpists, trained in other therapeutic disciplines such as psychology, music therapy and occupational therapy, use the harp in their practices to elicit specific cognitive or behavioral changes. In addition, a harpist might teach an individual to play the harp to assist in pain reduction, to help to overcome physical, mental and emotional challenges, to create a sense of community in a group setting, and to provide physical rehabilitation.

Typically, a therapeutic harpist receives training from a therapeutic musician training program. The graduate is then awarded a certification credential that is unique to his/her program. Standards of practice for Therapeutic Musicians have been established by the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians (NSBTM)”[2].

Harp therapy, while it is sometimes employed at the bedside of those who are approaching the end of their lives, is typically aimed at the broader spectrum of patient support. Music thanatology, on the other hand, is specific to end-of-life support.

Music Thanatology[]

“Music-thanatology is a professional field within the broader sub-specialty of palliative care. It is a musical/clinical modality that unites music and medicine in end of life care. The music-thanatologist utilizes harp and voice at the bedside to lovingly serve the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the dying and their loved ones with prescriptive music.

Prescriptive music is live music that responds to the physiological needs of the patient moment by moment. For example, by observing vital signs such as heart rate, respiration and temperature, the music-thanatologist provides music that is tailored to each specific situation. The warmth of this living music can bring solace, dignity and grace to those nearing the ultimate journey at the end of life.

This music can help to ease physical symptoms such as pain, restlessness, agitation, sleeplessness and labored breathing. It offers an atmosphere of serenity and comfort that can be profoundly soothing for those present. Difficult emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and grief can be relieved as listeners rest into a musical presence of beauty, intimacy and compassion.

Music-thanatology is not intended to entertain or distract the patient. Instead, this music allows the patient to enter into the unbinding process of letting go in his or her own very personal way. It affords families a chance to be with their loved one in a very intimate yet safe atmosphere where words are not necessary and the words that are said can come from a deep place, aided by the music”[3]

Music thanatologists usually go through a rigorous several-year training program combining on-site mentorship with trained practitioners in a hospital setting with intensive curriculum ranging from anatomy and physiology to voice and harp lessons before becoming certified by the Music Thanatology Association International.

Further Reading[]

Certification and Standards


Training and Instruction


Note about this article. Some of this content has been copy-pasted from Peggy Coates' website dorveille.com The website has disappeared, but the content remains on the internet archives. Attempts have been made to get in touch with the original author, but have been unfruitful. Should Peggy come across this content, please get in touch with @harpwiki!

  1. Medicine.net. Definition of Therapy. Retrieved from http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=10897
  2. Harp Therapy (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.harptherapy.com/
  3. MTAI (n.d.) What is Music Thanatology? Retrieved from http://www.mtai.org/index.php/what_is