Why don’t music therapists use the harp more often? Perhaps it is because music therapists are unaware of the benefits of the harp in their practice! Once I discovered the instrument years ago, I found myself utilizing the harp for music therapy more and more within my sessions. As an independent contractor who services many locations, I find the harp is an ideal instrument for a variety of reasons. Notably, it cuts down on the number of instruments I need to load and carry to my appointments.
The Harp in History
Historically the harp has been used for centuries to soothe. In many cultures, the harp holds a special place in society. The instrument is over 4,000 years old and deemed so important that instrument, and occasionally the actual musician, are found in tombs along with other essentials such as food and precious materials. Several ancient cultures believed the harp aided the dead towards a successful passing to the afterlife.
The shape of the instrument itself has been romanticized and humanized through time. Woods used to construct the instrument are often considered sacred. Decoration on the harp can depict life events the harp preceded over. Many music therapists know the biblical story of David and King Saul. David’s provided exceptional music therapy skills by soothing King Saul with his harp. I do not mean to pull this into the realm of myth, but there is generally a grain of truth to every idea! Most would agree, the harp is a calming instrument to listen to.
A Natural Instrument to Play
If you understand the human body’s anatomy, you will find that the harp is a very natural instrument to play. Although, carrying a full-size concert harp might be another story! The body remains in a normal position and the strumming motion follow thru aligns with the human body’s natural anatomical movement. Additionally, holding a harp adds no stress to the body.
Since the harp is “hugged” to the body, the vibrations resonate from the center of the player.
This sensation is similar to the experience described by percussionists playing their instruments. The harp adds an element for consideration regarding the population you are working within music therapy and can greatly aid in the goals of a particular session:
- It is gently plucked and not struck. The act of striking an object can be a reminder of more aggressive motions; plucking does not generally have that association.
- The emanating vibrations take a period to dissipate gradually. The sound wave does not suddenly peak and fade; instead, there is a gradual decay.
Other then the voice, the harp is one of a few instruments in which the player’s energy directly influences the sound. There is no intermediary device between the player and the instrument. Energy reflects emotion, meaning the energy placed in producing the sound will directly reflect emotion. When one is playing the piano, there are the hammers used for sound production between the instrument and the player; with the violin, there is the bow between them. The energy used to pluck the string is a very direct means of reflecting energy which is essentially emotion. One string plucked has the power to tell a whole story.
Consider the Possibilities for the Individuals in Music Therapy
- For the person who needs the release of energy but may have anger issues, the harp allows for immediate gratification but does not involve hitting something. Consider survivors of sexual abuse.
- For the person who is confused or displaying disorganized thinking, consider the protocol for working with those experiencing Dementia wherein the harp may provide centering by holding it and feeling the vibrations.
- Physically for building strength in the fingers and hands. Playing the harp can be a gentle way to increase strength and dexterity. Utilized in physical therapy, it can prove more interesting and rewarding experience over “therapy” At the same time, the reward of sound may increase relaxation value, minimizing tenseness and therefore decrease pain from tense muscles.
There are many different reasons for one to be drawn to the harp. Both players and listeners can enjoy the resonance and overtones of the harp. Even in plucking just one note there can be satisfaction and beauty. In future installments of Harp for Music Therapists, I hope to provide helpful considerations, tips, resources, and guidance for those beginning a journey with this mystical and multifaceted instrument.
Lever Harp Basics
There are a wide variety of lever harps available in the market! You will find the most versatility with a harp of at least 30 strings. Some harps will come with just F and B levers. These are less expensive, generally, but will limit the availability of keys to play in. For this reason, I always recommend purchasing an instrument with full levers.
Purchase a Quality Instrument
Make sure you have a genuine instrument. There are many cheap instruments on the market. A good instrument has strength. Inexpensive instruments will twang when you “overplay” a note.
Harp levers should be regulated on a yearly basis to optimize the sound of the harp. A harp technician in your area can perform this service. Regulation will fix buzzes associated with the harp’s levers. Additionally, you will need to periodically wipe the instrument down. This is especially important if you are working in a hospital setting. It is typical for the finish of a harp to wear over time. Keeping your harp clean will help maintain the protective finish on an instrument.
Holding the Harp
I began organ lessons at age 5. I think that my organ teacher wanted me to play the harp because during lessons she would consistently bring me over to a large gold harp to try out specific techniques to give the comparison to that technique on the organ. I distinctly remember being terrified. At the time my perception was she was trying to kill me by crushing me when she laid that massive harp across my body! Because of this, I have always been cautious, particularly with children, when I introduce them to the physical harp. I always make sure to ask them if I may show them how to hold it, followed by carefully placing it on their shoulder.
When I came back to the harp later in life, I discovered the incredible feeling of vibration when hugging the harp with proper balance. Larger harps have a balancing point when it is placed on its tip. You should not feel the weight of it at all if you are balancing it correctly and position it at the correct hight. It indeed is an act of giving and taking/meeting in the middle. When placed correctly, there is no way to harm yourself playing the harp physically. Professional harpists may get painful callouses due to the repetitive motion and related problems from many hours of playing.
Step 1: Sit in a chair with your hands to your sides
Step 2: Raise your hands to the sides
Step 3: Bring your hands into the center of the harp
Hand Position on the Strings
Finger placement is particularly important on a harp. For example, if you are playing 4 notes, you would most likely place them all on the string before sounding the notes. Also, often as one finger is playing, there is another in place on the string. Consider a spider: They don’t generally hang by one leg. One leg is in place holding on as the other moves.
Please note, harpists do not use their 5th finger (pinkie). You have 8 digits to play with, and not 10. This is a different technique that experienced on the piano.
Additional Resources for Hand Positioning
Here are some great resources for further exploration of hand position on the harp:
Print resources include:
- “Thumbs up, Levers up” by Bonnie Moore
- “Begin the Folk Harp” by Sylvia Woods
- “Medieval to Modern” by Sam Mulligan
Here is my recommendation for tuning a lever harp. This method of resources provides the most versatility in transitioning to other keys/modes.
Unengaged the levers to tune the strings to C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb.
With this tuning, you can easily switch to C major by lifting (engaging) the E, A, B levers. Thus the pitched of the strings will be C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Here is a video about harp tuning.
In summary, having a “real” musical instrument will be important to you as a musician! This is because of sound quality and regulation which ensures the levers are correctly pitched when engaged. You need an instrument is flexible enough to be able to musically do what you wish. The Music Therapist’s approach to the instrument with a client should feel physically comfortable. The instrument is not asking you to do anything you do not physically already comfortably do. Using proper hand positioning will ensure you don’t hurt yourself (as with any instrument) and help you to “get around“ the strings to play what you want to play most easily.
When considering improvisation on the harp, the levers can provide a fresh viewpoint for thinking about key signatures. One can easily explore tonality by simply engaging different levers to create the desired scale. The exciting part with the lever harp is you can set the levers for the desired key to and explore without playing a pitch out of key! You may choose to stick with learned principles of music theory to develop musical lines and phrases, however, it can be very freeing to not think about theory at all! Just explore and create freely! I invite you to trust that your ear will tell you what to do!
First Steps to Improvising on the Harp
One approach is to begin with a bass line pattern. Once the bass is stable, try singing a melody line above it. Next, record yourself playing the bass so that you can play it back and focus on plucking the melody line.
In a music therapy session, the therapist can play a bass line for the client. This allows the client to explore the melody through singing or playing the higher pitched strings of the harp. Remember, the levers are already set so there is no worry about what strings are played.
The simplest bass lines are based upon the Tonic and Dominant pitches of the key. Focusing on these root and fifth pitches establish a structure and give the line grounding.
Let’s Try and Example
Start with the bass pitches of the chords D and A. Using just the root notes gives you more flexibility regarding the modes you may be choosing to play melodic material with. Next, add the 5th to those root notes: D/A and A/E. Typically on the harp you do not use the third in a major root position chord. This is because the third is not clearly heard and can be considered a waste of your energy.
For our melody, let’s engage 4 levers: E, A, B, and G (hence G#):
Different tonalities will work as well: E to E, D to D. Explore it like a pathway and it will guide you to a resolution of the melody. To hear a sample of what this sounds like, YouTube links have been provided above each exercize.
Here is this same drone base is written out in chordal form:
If you are using it in it’s “major” mode, remember to use a G sharp (4 levers up E, A, B, and G). If you are using the “minor” version leave the G unengaged (3 levers up E, A, B). Each provides a different mood. Again, it frees you from considering traditional keys and moves you to explore.
Another means of beginning an improvisation is to just place the triads in root position with the right hand over it. With the G natural you are playing in E Phrygian.
Stagger the rhythm of the right hand:
Initially explore with rhythmic accents using these chords. As you become comfortable exploring rhythm, add wisps of melody, grace notes.
Raise the G levers (giving you Gsharp) and notice how the mode immediately becomes bolder and more open, such as in flamingo music. Explore this new tonal center.
Here is a mode which you may find useful with the Tonic/Dominant pattern in the bass of E/B.
Add a Dsharp. Your tonal center continues to be E. You will now have all levers engaged except the red and black (C and F). This is an E Byzantine scale.
The above are Middle Eastern scales. I have chosen to begin with this to keep you from the beginning anxiety of the “right” and “wrong” you may perceive in western music. It also exposes you to an entirely different affective spectrum. For more on the playing of these modes I suggest Diana Rowan “World Harp Techniques” ebook to get you started. Lou Harrison has some ideas about using rhythm and making up your own modes if you need some ideas to get you started in structuring your creations. Remember, short motifs and repetition.
Think of C Mixolydian as the C major scale with the 7th tone lowered 1/2 step: C, D, E, F, G, A, B flat, C:
If you really want to play with the Celtic sound, make these 2 adjustments in your playing:
- Play 2 consecutive notes and skip a note. In this mode I recommend skipping E and B.
- Use a dotted rhythm:
Notice in the bass the pitch moves from C down to the B. In Celtic music the bass often seems to move up one pitch or down one pitch. These stepwise notes are often still part of the Tonic/Dominant harmonization (C is part of C chord/B is part of G chord)
The Lydian mode built on C:
Think of this mode as a C major scale with the raised 4th: C, D, E, F-sharp, G, A, B, C. C Lydian can easily morph into G major if you wish some variety.
For further bass exploration, use a pattern comprised of C and D chords. The D chord (D, F-sharp, A) compliments the C Lydian centering on the F-sharp as well as being the Dominant in the G major scale. There are many Celtic harpists but I have found Kim Robertson’s arrangement to be clearly laid out examples of interesting harmonies for study.
“NO FAIL” MODES
These are actually my favorite and I have saved them until the end. You really can do no wrong in playing around with them. It is like experimenting with paints on a canvas! There are so many colors and possibilities you will never get bored.
The G Harmonic minor scale (G, A, B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, G) using D as your tonal center (hence D, E-flat, F-sharp, G, A, B-flat, C, D). When experimenting with these scales and modes, remember to reinforce the tonality within the bass. For this mode:
Use a bass tonality of D/A to ground your melody.
For more familiarity with the Middle Eastern sounds and improvisational patterns I recommend Verlene Schermer, ”Playing and Improvising Middle Eastern Patterns”.
THE PENTATONIC MODE
With music therapists as my audience, I do not have much to say regarding the Pentatonic Mode! I am sure you are more than familiar with it. I simply want to point out how it is done on the harp.
Here below is the basic blues format often utilized by music therapists, I am also certain you are familiar with. This format works ideally for songwriting. Lyrically a good way of structuring this is to use the verses for the following:
- 1st verse: Statement of the problem/issue
- 2nd verse: Re-statement of the issue with further specifics
- 3rd verse: Problem-solving… what can be done to rectify the issue
- 4th verse: Restatement with the resolution
If you don’t want to use this for singing, it can be used for improvisation use C Mixolydian and explore accidentals (C, D, E, F, G, A, B-flat, C).
This leads me further into the topic of songwriting. For most of us, the most common instrument used during a songwriting session is generally the guitar as an accompaniment. What about using the harp? Chordal accompaniments can be just as easily played on the harp as accompaniment and may even provide more variability due to the range. Start thinking chord patterns on the harp. I showed you the blues pattern before discussing songwriting initially because I find one of the most effective patterns involves dividing the chords between 2 hands in a similar way as the blues pattern. Here is an example in G of a I, IV, V chord pattern. I have written this last example in the traditional way not with the 3 flats as I have been doing:
The harp pairs well with digital sound, which has become increasingly popular! When plucking even just one string, a whole story of an individual’s emotional and physical state is revealed. This because there are no physical barriers to the individual playing and the instrument itself influencing the sound. For instance, on a piano you have hammers. Then on the violin, you have the the bow between the hands of the player and the vibration. When an individual plucks a string on the harp their direct energy sounds the instrument. It is difficult to hide one’s feelings while playing the harp.
The simple act of recording can provide wonderful feedback on your performance. Additionally, recording a client and playing it back for them can give them the experience of being in control of manipulating one’s feelings.
Questions you can ask your client are:
- How would you sound if you were stronger?
- If you were happier?
- If you can not adjust to getting that sound on your own, can you create it another way?
Sound Editing Software
Sound Editing Programs such as GarageBand can lead to exploring how one would want to sound and give insight into what it would take physically to make that difference they seek. A project of recording multiple tracks with different individuals, then mixing it digitally can provide individuals, as well as a group a wealth of insight and information about themselves and how they operate within a group. We all know a group needs to work together in order to produce good music.
How to Connect Your Harp
Digitally connecting a harp is relatively easy! You will need a harp, cable, a transducer, an audio interface, and your recording device, which can be a smartphone, iPad or computer.
Loopers are very popular in usage with the harp. It is remarkably simple to use little motifs in combination to get extraordinary improvisation. For some professional examples, check out Pia Salvia, Lara Somogyi and Deborah Henson Conant (how to video) on YouTube.
There are many different reasons one may be drawn to the harp, either to play or to listen. Both groups may enjoy the resonance and overtones. Much as I have searched I really have not found much in the way of scientific validation as to why this instrument is so profound. Even in plucking one note there can be satisfaction and beauty. My intent in writing this article is for those who wish to explore its use therapeutically to provide some helpful considerations, tips, resources and guidance for those beginning a journey with this mystical, multifaceted instrument.
Benson, Stella (1999). The Healing Musician: A Guide to Playing Healing Music at the
Bedside. New Grail Media. Some common sense reminders. In the back of the book
some simple pieces to explore.
Conant, Deborah Hanson (23010) Gurl’s Guide to Amplification. Arlington, MA: Golden
Farrell, Gerry (2000). Indian Music and the West. Oxford, United Kingdon: Clarendon
Press. This is an interesting history of Indian music and how it integrated into western
Harrison, Lou (1970). Music Primer. New York, NY: C F Peters Corporation. Many
interesting ideas to get you improvising.
Moore, Bonnie (1998). Thumbs Up, Levers Up. Peachtree, GA: FC Publishing Company.
Excellent illustrations of hand position and great beginner exercises to get fingers moving.
Mulligan, Sam. Medieval to Modern (3 volumes). Chicago, IL: Lyon & Healy Publishing.
The pieces are not difficult and are for lever harp. Many unusual finds from over the
Reck, David (1977). Music of the Whole Earth. New York, NY: Charles Scribner.
Rensch, Roslyn (2007). Harps and Harpists. Bloomington,
detailed history of the harp and all things harp… if you are a harp-o-
Ritchie, Jean (1974). The Dulcimer Book. London, United Kingdom: Oak Publications.
These traditional “American” tunes are often model. Good to experience getting them into
Robertson, Kim. Celtic Harp Solos music book as well as her other various music books on
arranging Traditional music. Her use of chords, inversions
worth learning from.
Rowan, Diana. World Harp Techniques eBook. www.dianarowan.com. A vast amount of
improvisational harp information can be found here.
Schermer, Verlene (2017). Playing and Improvising Middle Eastern Music. San Jose, CA.
keeps it simple and interesting.
Schumann, Andrew (2016). Waking the Spirit. New York City, NY: Macmillan. He is
discussing music practitioner work but makes many valid points.
Wheeler, Barbara (2015). Music Therapy Handbook, New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
There is mention of the harp made. Many of the utilizing drumming and guitar would apply
to harp as well.
Williams, Sarajane (2017). Chakra Suite. musiatry.com. This is a modal piece that does
not require many lever changes. It may give you some interesting improvisational ideas.
She also provides information regarding harp therapy on her website which you may find
Woods, Sylvia (2008). Teach Yourself to Play the Folk Harp and numerous other lever harp
pieces. Princeville, HI: Woods Music & Books, Inc Many YouTube videos as well very
helpful for changing a string, tuning, hand position if you prefer learning thru video.
Nancy O’Brien has practiced Music Therapy in a wide variety of settings for 30 years including psychiatric hospitals, medical units, and hospice. She has worked with all age groups including those incarcerated, in day treatment, and living in group homes. Nany has been a consultant for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in addition to her private practice.
Outside of music therapy, she was the Director of a child and adolescent psychiatric unit and Executive Director of a community music school. She has taught music theory, piano lessons, and harp lessons for many years. Additionally, Nancy has freelanced in a number of orchestras, published chamber music arrangements, and released several albums of ensemble music. In her free time, Nancy and her Labrador, Geely, like to get some fresh air doing canine scent work for recreation.