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Observations placeholder

Canon Frederick Kill Harford and the Guild of St Cecilia



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

The Music Therapy Profession in Modern Britain – Dr Helen Tyler [in Music as Medicine]

Canon Frederick Kill Harford (1832-1906) … formed a group of 'musician healers' which he named the Guild of St Cecilia

Harford, an accomplished musician, composer, hymn-writer and Minor Canon at Westminster Abbey, had a conviction that music could be an effective form of treatment for certain medical conditions. He devised and carried out some experiments on his own and then set about publicizing and promoting his ideas. He used both the medical and the musical press, his first articles appearing in The Lancet and The Magazine of Music.

In these, he described an occasion where he had successfully used soothing music and a sacred text to induce sleep in an elderly-sick woman. His hypothesis was that music could alleviate pain and relieve anxiety, thus having a sedative effect. He appealed to professional musicians to make themselves available to perform for patients and to doctors to take part in some trials in order to test his theories.

In response to these articles, sufficient musicians came to the first rehearsal in 1891, to enable Harford to form the Guild of St Cecilia, which consisted of a group of violinists and female singers. His plan was that, after rehearsing music composed or arranged by him, the Guild would be available to travel to any hospital in London when requested by a doctor. The musicians would be paid for their work, with double fees after midnight. Harford considered it to be essential that the patients should not see the musicians or have any contact with them, so the music would be played from behind a screen or in an adjacent room. Furthermore, he planned to use the newly-invented telephone system as a means of relaying live music to more than one hospital at a time and, eventually, to extend the service to the whole country. A series of experiments was then carried out in which selected patients were treated with music, under the supervision of a doctor, and then interviewed by Harford.

He wrote up the results in the medical press. Patients told him that they felt better or were soothed, and one depressed patient reportedly spoke for the first time in two weeks after hearing the music.

………….. Harford continued with his experiments, extending his repertoire to include lively 'stimulative' music as well as calming 'sedative' music. He again questioned the patients to see which treatment was most effective and wrote up the findings. The results were mixed and Harford admitted that he did not have enough information to draw any firm conclusions. The first patients to receive the treatment were those with 'nervous' conditions; a further development was to treat victims of a scarlet fever epidemic in 1892, using specially trained medical personnel to supply the music so as to avoid infecting the musicians.

Again, responses varied. One doctor claimed that music had reduced the patients' fevers,' while an editorial in The Musical Times ridiculed the idea.

The Guild continued for several more years, but the increasing costs of providing the service and the poor health of its founder prevented it from developing further and, when Harford died in 1906, it soon faded away. An editorial in the British Medical Journal acknowledged that the Guild had been useful in some areas, particularly in reducing fever and calming patients, but doubted that music could ever become a recognized form of treatment. It concluded:
'The St Cecilia  Guild- excellent as their intentions were – worked somewhat fitfully and aimed too high’. [sic]


The source of the experience

Saint Cecilia

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


Music therapy