Harp Therapist Linda Hill-Phoenix


While HSTL’s Norihiko Hibino’s instrument of choice is the saxophone, you should know that this is not the instrument typically associated with sound therapy.

Harp therapy has been around for a long time, and we’ve been fortunate to sit down with certified harp therapist Linda Hill-Phoenix, who uses her talents to treat patients at San Diego Hospice and the Institute for Palliative Medicine, to give us a detailed explanation of harp therapy, its benefits to patients at the end of life, and how those who are interested in pursuing such a career can learn more.

It’s certainly an interesting and educational read, so we would like to thank Linda for her time. Feel free to let us know your impressions of harp therapy if you’ve experienced it before as well.

The difference between music therapy, sound therapy, and her own specialty, harp therapy

Music therapy, sound therapy, and harp therapy have in common that they are all part of the musical world; however, they each have their own specific emphasis. Of course, harp therapy employs the harp as its only instrument. There are many sizes, but usually the small folk harp called a therapeutic harp is used at the bedside.

Music therapy is the clinical use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Music therapists assess the strengths and needs of their clients, then provide treatment with musical instruments used interactively, singing, creating songs, movements, and/or listening to prescribed music. The results of this type of intervention are that the client’s abilities are strengthened and there is overall rehabilitation.

With sound therapy, toning is used, or the crystal bowls are played, or the gong is sounded, or beautiful, relaxing CDs are played, etc. Usually these instruments are used to balance the body and calm the mind.

With harp therapy, the certified practitioner uses inclusive attention to the patient and creates an atmosphere of soothing sounds in a gentle and sensitive manner with the intention of matching the listener’s mood, breathing, heart rates, resonant tone, and musical preferences.

What harp therapy does in patients

Harp therapy lowers the blood pressure and respiration rate while also increasing the production of endorphins which reduce pain and promote healing. In the case of someone dying, the harp provides a cradle of sound to support the patient in transition.

Harp therapy definitely helps patients who are in distress to relax, and many times through this soothing music, patients can go from this more relaxed state into sleep.
Many times, the families of the dying patients are also comforted and calmed by the support of the harp therapy sessions.

Do you see the field of music therapy as creative? Do most practitioners perform the compositions of others, or do they compose their own pieces? Are there specific pieces that should be in every harp therapist’s repertoire that are used for very specific ailments in patients?

In music therapy, the therapist can lead the client into composing his/her own music. The music therapist determines the most appropriate music and instrument to use with the client.

In harp therapy, the harp practitioner plays the music that feels to be the most appropriate for the patient. Usually, the patient does not play the instrument, but sometimes the therapist will offer the harp to the patient to play a glissando while the therapist plays a melody in one of the octaves… a harp duet!

In the harp therapy program, practitioners are taught to improvise in the seven modes of music. Mostly, harp therapists play in these modes using specific modes for specific moods and situations; for example, if a person is constipated, the Phrygian mode is often played. If a person is agitated, the Dorian mode is played.

Sometimes a patient will request a certain favorite piece of music. Usually it is in the Ionian mode. In the training of the International Harp Therapy Program (IHTP), students are taught to memorize at least 30 songs in 13 categories of music (lullabies, standards, hymns, classics, ethnic, Celtic, etc.).

Having this background, practitioners can usually match the patient’s musical preference. Then this music is played in the resonant tone of the patient. Everyone has a note that feels the most comforting to hear, and through training the practitioner can discern this note.


Different instruments used in sound therapy and what makes the harp special

Yes, I believe other instruments can be used therapeutically depending on how the instrument is played and if it is played with the intention of healing and with sensitivity to the listener’s needs. Personally, I find the music of Norihiko Hibino’s saxophone incredibly comforting, relaxing, and healing.

Of course, the harp is very special because it has a unique capacity for matching the listener’s personal energy. Harps offer the full range of sound vibrations, producing not only all the tones of the musical scale, but all the overtones.

Finding her way into this specialty and advice/resources for newcomers

I came to work within this specialty of playing harp in the health care field through the San Diego Community College District when I was hired as a professor to teach musical experiences as an outreach program to senior citizens in retirement and nursing homes. After 14 years, my job ended and I heard about IHTP, founded by Christina Tourin. I took the course and became certified in 2005. Since then, I have been providing harp therapy to patients at the San Diego Hospice and Institute of Palliative Medicine.

Of course, I would encourage anyone interested in playing a musical instrument to study the harp; however, my advice is to follow one’s own inclination and intuition and study whichever instrument seems the most enjoyable and interesting. After learning the basic structure of an instrument and a few scales and pieces, then it would be worthwhile to investigate the therapeutic programs available, and decide which one fits best with the personal goals of being a healer with music. In IHTP, beginners are welcome to learn the basics of the harp as they also learn the therapeutic aspects and techniques. It may take a bit longer to complete the program, but there is much encouragement all along the way with personal mentoring and available harp teachers.

The best book for learning about harp therapy is Cradle of Sound, the harp therapy manual by Christina Tourin. Also, going to the website of the AMTA (American Music Therapists Association), one can find information about music therapy conferences, checking the website for the Sound and Music Alliance (an interdisciplinary alliance that promotes mutual interests in the intentional use and transformative power of sound and music throughout the full spectrum of life cycles), reading books by Don Campbell, Hal Lingerman, Josh Leeds, Jeff Volk, Fabien Mamon, and Sarajane Williams (vibroacoustic harp therapy… using the concert harp) are excellent sources of information about the use of music in healing.

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About Jayson Napolitano

As a hobbyist musician, music editor, and a pharmacist with experience working in palliative and end-of-life care, Jayson has a lot of thoughts on the therapeutic applications of music. He's seen it work wonders in his patients at San Diego Hospice & The Institute of Palliative Medicine and couldn't get through life himself without the calming effects of music.