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COPD Weekly Community Newsletter: Harmonica Therapy

Jun 2, 2018 1:54:21 AM / by Cory Luckner


Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” - Plato

Last week we talked about pulmonary exercise and how important it is to work out your lungs by doing exercises such as Pursed-Lip Breathing and Diaphragm Breathing. This week I traveled to Austin, Texas—proudly known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” I met several talented musicians and asked one, “How are you able to play the saxophone for such extended periods of time without getting dizzy?” He told me he spent many years mastering the “art of breathing.”

The next morning, as I enjoyed a wonderful cup of coffee on the patio of the small, hip restaurant, Austin Java, I began thinking about our pulmonary exercises for COPD patients (pursed-lip breathing and diaphragm breathing). It was here, over breakfast, when I realized that musicians are using the same techniques to condition their lungs, only they are able to quantify their results through the use of an instrument. The more in-shape their lungs become, the better/longer they are able to play.

Which leads me to a new breathing exercise for COPD patients: Harmonica Therapy

Improving Breathing with Harmonica Therapy


Many doctors around the world have used a form of music therapy for their patients. According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music Therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. After assessing the strengths and needs of each client, the qualified music therapist provides the indicated treatment including creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music.”

Music therapy has been very effective at helping to relieve the depression experienced by many COPD patients.

Bernardo Canga, Coordinator of the Advances in Respiration (“AIR”) Program, says, “Rather than confining treatment to using an inhaler or taking medicine, we’re using music therapy to teach people how to use their breath when they start to have symptoms.” 

Playing the harmonica can help people suffering from chronic lung conditions, such as asthma, COPD or emphysema in two ways:

  1. They will learn how to build lung capacity and gain better awareness and control of their breathing
  2. By creating sounds and rhythms they can reduce their breathing rates and anxiety levels.

Johathan Raskin, MD, explains, “By playing the harmonica or flute, you learn how to control your breathing, when to inhale, when to exhale, and how to pace yourself.”

For over eighteen years, JP Allen has been teaching music at the University of Texas and Austin Community College. Although he now lives in Hawaii, he continues to offer his wonderful harmonica courses online. JP says; “I focus on rhythm first, because in order to play harmonica musically, you need to learn how to breathe with the rhythm.” 

In order to breathe with the rhythm, you need to practice one of your pulmonary exercises known as Diaphragm Breathing. JP believes that diaphragmatic breathing is the key to your speed, control, tone, and timing of the harmonica, and practicing diaphragm breathing regularly (which you should already be doing if you have COPD) will increase your ability to play for extended periods of time without getting dizzy. In other words, it teaches the “art of breathing”.

Since this is one of the main exercises for COPD patients, along with Pursed-Lip breathing, I thought I would go over the steps one more time.

Diaphragm Breathing

  • Step 1: Lay flat on your back
  • Step 2: Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest
  • Step 3: Inhale deeply, but make sure the hand on your chest remains still and the hand on your stomach moves with each breath in and each breath out.
  • Step 4: When you inhale, the hand on your stomach will rise up. When you exhale, the hand on your stomach will fall down

Applying Diaphragm Breathing to music:

  1. Buy a harmonica
  2. Practice your diaphragm breathing into your harmonica – “If you chest-breathe, not only will you hyperventilate and get dizzy, your rhythm will also be choppy and stiff.” –JP Allen

Reading Harmonica Tablature: Made Easy

The number listed corresponds with the hole you need to go to on your harmonica (1-10).

If the arrow above the number is pointed UP, blow (breathe out).

If the arrow above the number is pointed DOWN, draw (breathe in).


Better Breathing with the Pulmonica 

If you like the idea of using an instrument to measure your results, but you don’t have any desire to play the harmonica, you might want to consider the “Pulmonica” (Pulmonary Harmonica). The Pulmonica is a harmonica developed specifically for lung patients to help move out mucus, it will produce deep, resonant, meditative sounds that can be felt vibrating in the lungs and sinuses. What’s great about the Pulmonica, is no musical talent is needed and was designed specifically for those who just want to take long, slow, breaths against resistance, without musical intent. For more information, check out www.pulmonica.com

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent” - William Shakespeare.

What are some musical instruments that you play to improve your breathing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease? Leave your response in a comment below and who knows you may even learn of a new instrument to play!

Until next week!

Aubrey Shelton
COPD Store Director 


Cory Luckner

Written by Cory Luckner

[Blog 2nd part here]