Why the Harp for Music-Thanatology and Prescriptive Music?

People often ask: “Why the harp?” and it’s a very good question. There are many reasons, and I will try to be brief and methodical.

The choice of harp has nothing to do with a sentimental caricature of heaven. The reasons are practical and seasoned.

First, the musician-clinician working in music-thanatology needs a polyphonic instrument (many sounding) in order to deliver end-of-life prescriptive music. So many instruments are beautiful – that is not debated. But a monophonic instrument (one-sounding or single-sounding) such as the flute or the oboe can only liberate one note at a time. A polyphonic instrument (such as piano, organ, harp) can deliver multiple notes simultaneously.

Second, the polyphonic instrument needs to be highly portable and has to be able to be played in what are oftentimes difficult, confined spaces, such as intensive care units, cardiac care units, private homes, etc. The piano, the organ, and even a symphonic pedal harp cannot fit into any IC unit that I have ever visited in the United States or Europe. The harp used in the clinical setting differs from the highly mechanized symphonic pedal harp, and will be explained shortly. The harp becomes the polyphonic instrument of choice as will be continually explained.

Third, the musician-clinician who works in a hospital or a hospice is loading and unloading the instrument in and out of a car, carrying it across hospital and hospice campuses or through medical complexes, up and down stairs, across bridges, through parking lots, and finally, into the room where the patient is dying. When you do this every day, five days a week, with hundreds of maneuvers a week, you need something that is portable and will not negatively affect the musician’s back, shoulders, hands, etc. The highly portable harp that we recommend for the clinical setting is lyrical, lightweight, stable and perfect for these kinds of repeated movements.

Fourth, because the instrument will be moved continually from patient bed to patient bed, in the hospital this morning, in a geriatric home by mid-day, inside a private home later, and the back at the hospital again, being exposed to many air, pressure and humidity changes, coming in and out of cars, in the rain and snow, the heat and the wind, the musician clinician needs a very stable instrument (pitch-stable), hence our specific recommendations for only certain harps with which we have years of experience, tested and true.

Fifth, the manner in which the sound stream is liberated from the instrument is very important, as is the volume. Many instruments are gorgeous, affect our bodies and souls in remarkable ways, but the sheer volume and nature of the sound production of many kinds of otherwise gorgeous instruments can be physiologically and psychologically invasive to someone who is extremely vulnerable, horizontal, and in close proximity. By the time we receive the clinical referral, oftentimes the patient is not alone, but shares a room. (In geriatric homes and hospitals, for example, the patients often share rooms.). The intensive care unit, for a different model, is an arena of close quarters, burdened and liberated both by technological life-support machinery, and this is a situation where the volume of the sound stream can seep through the glass windows and down the hall. For these reasons, the harp winds up being remarkably perfect, because the sound is always dissolving. Without any intention to defame the beauty of a particular family of instruments, does it make sense to you that a trumpet, trombone, oboe, bassoon or French horn would far exceed the delicate parameters needed here?

A final practical reason is physiological and therapeutic: the music-thanatologist leans on the uses of many warm, low, resonant tones in the delivery of prescriptive music for the care of the dying. This has to do with the relief of pain and/or suffering.

There are many beautiful instruments, but few meet the criteria listed here, with the exception of a particular harp. There are ultimately many more subtle reasons for the harp, but those are theological, mystical, psychological and more subjective, will be left for a future time.

I hope it goes without saying that harp literature is beautiful, and we must become more beautiful, inwardly, to carry its voice. Some people say that the sound of the harp is heavenly, but it always depends on the literature being played and the musician, for there is much exciting, wonderful, avant-garde literature that is highly stimulating, earthy, and demanding, and it is also possible on our worst days to give correct notes but leave listeners unmoved. So beauty with a capital B (Beauty) is elusive; we work for her; she is one of the great Transcendentals. In the end, it seems that our patients and concert listeners deserve nothing less.

By way of conclusion: Harps are not standardized; there are many different kinds and sizes of professional concert quality harps, and the size, design, tension and substance of the strings depend upon the repertoire the artist is carrying (i.e., medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, classical, symphonic, opera, 20th century, chamber music, art song, folk music, etc). The instruments we have been recommending for many years for the clinical work are some of the most stable instruments in the industry. I have never seen one implode or explode, and their makers are luthiers of great integrity.

The 31-stringed “Gothic” harp found on our on-line bookstore is a hybrid design of tremendous dependability. It is not a reproduction of a medieval harp, though the slender pillar echoes something of that sensibility. Historically, the soundboards of many harps are known to either implode or explode after several generations of playing; their entire existence revolves around sustained torque or string pressure. The harps we recommend are built by luthiers and designers who are serious and their harps are tried and true. (I say this with twenty-four years of teaching, some years, thirty eight students a semester). The “Gothic” harp is lightweight (22 pounds), very lyrical, warm, unusually stable (come rain or shine!) and is very modestly priced. If you happen to know the recording Rosa Mystica, this music was recorded on the same model harp. Another harp that we play is larger, more than twice the weight, three times the price, gorgeous in tone, physically beautiful, stable as an oak, and heard on The Geography of the Soul.

If you would like to go visit our Online Gift Shop, you’ll be able to find the Gothic harp available, with a second model, the more expensive one, coming soon. Both harps are examples of instruments my colleagues and I play in concert and on clinical rotations, and both are harps we’re sure you will love and enjoy.

Come back to this page soon and see a small photo-history of harps through the ages. Meanwhile, we wish you Beauty in music!

To continue, please go to What is the Mercy Run?

Last updated Tuesday, 25-Feb-2014