Blowing the blues is good for your lungs. So is just about anything else you play on a harmonica. Whether your tastes run to “Love Me Do,” “Sweet Home Chicago” or that 19th-century nonsense ditty “Oh! Susanna,” as little as 10 minutes a day playing a harmonica may give you better breathing. In fact, what they’re calling “harmonica therapy” is gaining steam in pulmonary-rehabilitation programs across the country for people with asthma, COPD and even lung transplants. But don’t let the word “therapy” put you off. Playing the harmonica is a ton of fun, and it’s good exercise for healthy lungs, too.
Whether your lungs are compromised or in good shape, you should try it—here’s why.
TOE-TAPPING MUSIC-MAKING CLINICAL THERAPY
How does harmonica playing strengthen the lungs? Experts say that it mimics the inspiratory (inhaling) and expiratory (exhaling) breathing exercises taught by pulmonary rehabilitation staff.
When you play a harmonica, you create sounds by the resistance of your breath against the instrument’s reeds. Unlike, say, the clarinet, you’re working against that reed resistance when you’re exhaling and when you’re inhaling. That strengthens the diaphragm (the largest muscle of the respiratory system), encourages deep breathing, and may help clear mucus from the lungs. While scientific studies haven’t specifically validated therapeutic harmonica playing, it mimics…and encourages…the breathing exercises that have been shown to improve lung function.
Lung specialists around the country believe in it. “We use harmonicas for all patients with pulmonary disease,” says Missy Von Luehrte, RN, pulmonary rehabilitation nurse at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California. It’s not only effective but fun and relaxing, easy to learn and an inexpensive, easy-to-carry instrument, she says. Patients like it, too. Says Vivian Low, MPH, RN-BC, clinical manager of the pulmonary-rehabilitation program at El Camino Hospital, “Anecdotally, in all the programs across the United States that have used harmonica with lung patients, the patients feel that they are strengthening their breathing.”
FOR PEOPLE WITH HEALTHY LUNGS, TOO, IT’S INTERNAL POWER LIFTING
Some experts believe that playing a wind instrument such as the harmonica can benefit everyone, especially as we age. After about the age of 30, most people begin to lose lung function. By age 50, even people with healthy lungs may lose 50% of their younger capacity, says John Schaman, MD, Ontario Aerobics Centre, a cardiac rehabilitation center in Ontario, Canada. “There is considerable anecdotal evidence that those who use their lungs in more extraordinary ways have less decline,” he says.
Sure, you can get deep breathing in other ways, such as meditation practice and yoga, and that’s great. What harmonica adds is resistance, says Von Luehrte. “It’s like lifting weights for your lungs.”
DO YOU NEED A SPECIAL TYPE OF HARMONICA?
Some experts recommend harmonicas specifically developed for lung therapy. The Pulmonica, for example, is designed to create more resistance than a standard harmonica, promoting the clearance of secretions. It makes a pleasant sound, but you can’t as easily use it to play songs. The Seydel Medical Harmonica, which Dr. Schaman helped develop, uses chords rather than single notes, so it may be easier for some people to learn than a standard harmonica.
Others prefer everyday harmonicas. Pulmonary nurse Von Luehrte thinks devices such as the Pulmonica and the Seydel can take the fun out of a simple, joyful musical experience, making harmonica play more like other physical therapy exercises and less of a relaxing, social activity. And while playing chords may be easier and create more resistance, it hasn’t been shown that one way of playing is better, healthwise, than another.
So go play…a minimum of 10 minutes a day—more is better. Many pulmonary centers across the country have harmonica therapy groups, which can make it a more social—and musical—experience. Plus the instructors can teach patients the basics of proper breathing and playing. Some senior centers are getting into the act, too. The most important skill to learn is to breathe with your diaphragm to help your lungs expand, according to nurse Low. If you want to explore a musical approach, check out the book and CD Harmonica for Fun and Health to get you started. Or you can Google “harmonica therapy” or “learn to play harmonica” to find a number of instructional sites.
Next topic for research inspired by a Steven Foster song: Is there therapeutic value to playing a banjo—on your knee?