1. How can music actually heal? And is the idea of using harp for healing some recent New Age idea?
Ever since mothers began singing to babies to soothe their colic and quiet them to sleep, we have known the healing power of music. The earliest Egyptians, the Greeks, the people of India and throughout Asia used lyres and other small stringed instruments to heal specific conditions. 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 energize humans and animals.
While the human voice and many other instruments can also "tone" or drone and then be focused in a healing way, the harp is unusual in that it has many strings (usually from 25 to 47) and the vibrations of each plucked harp string are multiplied many times by corresponding overtones and undertones. This rich mix and blend of harmonic sound bathes the body, mind, and spirit of a listener with all of the vibrational energy which the sound carries.
From Biblical times, the best known example of healing with harp music is probably the story of David healing King Saul. David, a shepherd boy and harper who was later to become King David, was urgently sent for by King Saul, who suffered from severe anxiety, "bad dreams," and depression. David's harp playing successfully soothed Saul, and led to David's becoming a member of Saul's household as "resident harper."
2. What kinds of conditions can harp music benefit? And is there any "hard evidence" to support this?
Gradually, over many centuries of observation in many cultures, a body of belief and practice emerged which applied the use of vibrational music to the treatment of specific conditions such as anxiety,sleeplessness, pain, and depression or melancholy.
More collection of data and controlled studies of therapeutic music is needed and is underway. Don Campbell ("The Mozart Effect") and Kay Gardner are two among the increasing number of current writers whose books documenting the history of the healing effects of music are very accessible. Overall, scientific studies since the 1940's tend to show consistently that music used in a therapeutic setting has the effects of:
* Reducing pain and the need for painkilling drugs
* Stabilizing blood pressure, whether too low or too high
* Lifting depressed moods
* Slowing heart rate
* Relaxing muscular tension
* Soothing agitation, as in Alzheimer's patients
* Reducing anxiety
* Allowing peaceful sleep
* Retrieving happy and comforting memories, even in persons with other kinds of severe memory loss
* Bringing joy into stressful or isolated settings
Clinical and personal experience with the specific effects of harp music clearly show that harpists can bring an enriched quality of life to persons with any painful, chronic, or deteriorating condition. In many hospitals, homes, and nursing homes across several continents, people are receiving therapeutic harp services and report the benefits. Those who are benefiting include women and men with Alzheimer's, cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, or AIDS, and even persons in unresponsive or coma states.
3. Why is harp music used at the bedsides of unconscious and dying persons? Isn't the harp more beneficial when people are conscious and can appreciate what's being done?
Playing harp at the bedsides of dying persons is a very specialized kind of therapeutic work that should only be undertaken by harpists with advanced training in the medical, therapeutic, and improvisational requirements of this work. Certification programs for advanced study are now available in all parts of the U.S. A certain level of proficiency in harp is demanded, especially because of the need for skillful improvisation, sometimes for long hours of playing. The harpist is not merely "playing songs," but her or his first priority is to meet the constantly changing physical and medical needs of the client, in collaboration with the treatment team and staff.
Since hearing is the first sense to develop in a growing fetus, and it is believed to be the last sense to depart, harp music can provide benefit at most stages of the dying process; however, there are sometimes medically-contraindicated exceptions to this, which a therapeutically trained harpist should be able to recognize.
Today, most people die in noisy hospital or nursing home settings, where the person spends days and nights hearing the cries of other patients or the constant rattling, beeping, and hissing of technical equipment. The soothing voice of the harp changes and humanizes this atmosphere dramatically--starting with the smiles on the faces of the overworked staff members.
Availability of hospice services is also increasing, which allows people to approach end of life in their own homes. This more comforting atmosphere is also an excellent setting for the presence of 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.
Physically, emotionally, and spiritually, a person approaching end of life may go through many phases: at times they sleep fitfully, or peacefully, or may appear agitated, troubled, or simply unresponsive. Heart, pulse, and respiration rates may be erratic. Friends and family members gathered around may be emotionally stressed and grieving.
In this complex setting, harp music resonates gently with the rhythms of the person's own body; it can calm anxious states of mind and fill the room with an atmosphere of peace and well-being. Knowing and using the power of the harp at this crucial time of transition, the ancient Celtic tradition referred to the harp as the "Doorway between the Worlds" of heaven and earth.