Make way for the therapeutic harp

Music touches everyone in a very personal way and offers diverse beneficial effects. Just as a person experiences the various rhythms of life, the end of life has its own cadence. As an added benefit, music has also been shown to help caregivers, staff, those recovering from surgery, new babies and mothers, dementia patients and the chronically and critically ill.

As the final stages of dying approach, there is diminished emphasis on “cure,” and more attention is focused on providing comfort and dignity. Dying encompasses a myriad of physical and emotional states, including pain, anxiety, fear, and depression. To alleviate these stressors, some providers have enlisted the services of music practitioners to create a peaceful environment—including some who offer harp music at the bedside.

First, some definitions: Music practitioners differ from music therapists in that therapists actively involve and instruct the resident in the process of creating sound. A music practitioner plays directly to the resident to relieve stress and provide solace.

Five years ago I was employed at a nursing home as a social worker. There was such a great need for death education among the staff. I had been to a conference and was exposed to a certified music practitioner who was playing the harp. That was all I needed. I took harp lessons, became certified, and began playing for the dying, educating caregivers on the dying process.

Why the Harp?
Historically, the harp has been an instrument of comfort and peace. The resonance from its strings, including the range of pitch and tonal color, create an important link between sound and recipient. The music should not be recognizable tunes, but rather melodic and with low tones; many times the music coincides with the patient’s breathing patterns. It is not intended to be entertainment (although patients often gather in the hall outside the recipient’s room to listen), and there is no need for a response or acknowledgement of the musician. The goal is to be unobtrusive.

Live harp music offers several healing properties and can benefit:

  • the temporarily, chronically, and/or critically ill
  • Alzheimer’s patients
  • patients before, during, and after surgery
  • premature and healthy babies
  • birthing mothers
  • the elderly, comatose, and the dying

Live music can help reduce blood pressure, relieve anxiety and stress, encourage positive mental imaging, augment pain management, facilitate the transition from life to death, open the way for grieving, serve as distraction from pain or grief, and relieve body tension.

A gentleman who was undergoing a particularly stressful test told me, “You’ll never know how helpful and wonderful your music was for me. After you left I was so much more relaxed. I had been shaking uncontrollably during the test even though I had Valium and Benadryl. I had brought a CD player and meditation music with me, but the interesting thing was after I had listened for awhile, I turned it off and I could hear your harp in my head, not the music I was listening to. I wonder, is that because it was live? I find that quite interesting. Thank you so much.”

In addition, family and staff members derive benefits from live music. Music can soften stressful situations and allows them to express grief and achieve closure. Harpists are told frequently how their music has calmed families, allowing them moments of emotional and physical relief.

Bedside music is appropriate and beneficial in hospitals, medical offices, hospice programs, nursing homes/assisted living settings, clinics, and private homes. Referrals and requests for the services of a music practitioner can be made by administrators, medical staff, social workers, clergy, and families. To find a music practitioner in your area, log onto the Music for Healing and Transition Program Web site at

Donalyn Gross, PhD, LCSW, CMP (death and dying counselor) works with hospitals, hospices, correctional systems, and long-term care facilities as a thanatologist. She teaches college courses in death, dying and bereavement, as well as presenting training workshops on end-of-life issues. Dr. Gross is the author of several books and has created music CDs, a video on her work with the dying, and the Good Endings® program (

). A professional musician as well as a hospice volunteer, she is a certified music practitioner, a graduate of the Music for Healing and Transition Program (

), and plays the harp for the dying.

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