New interdisciplinary research institute to explore the impact of music on health and well-being

Posted on Thursday, September 23, 2021

A photo montage showing the benefits of music and music therapy on physical, sensory, cognitive and mental health

If popular wisdom holds that music is good for the soul, science is increasingly seeking to better understand how music can affect the body, brain, and mind, as evidenced by the 2020 publication of the first World Health Organization report on health and music.

In response, the newly established University of Ottawa Music and Health Research Institute (MHRI) has made it its core mission to delve deeper into how musical intervention can affect health, developing the knowledge, innovative therapeutic practices, and solutions that can contribute to improving the health of populations.

The driving force behind this interdisciplinary initiative, which stands at the intersection of music, health sciences, social sciences, engineering, and medicine, is Faculty of Arts Professor Gilles Comeau, who has been appointed as director of the Institute for a five-year mandate. He is joined by the MHRI associate director and Faculty of Health Sciences professor Anna Zumbansen, who will bring her own complementary expertise to the Institute’s leadership.

“We want the Institute to become recognized as a major research hub and a reference in the field of music and health. A place where scholars, clinicians, caregivers, and music educators can exchange knowledge and work together to investigate and demonstrate, through a science-based approach, the benefits of music practice and therapy on physical, sensory, cognitive, and mental health,” says Gilles Comeau. 

Gilles Comeau

Professor Gilles Comeau, director of the MHRI

Born out of Comeau’s vision and leadership, the MHRI will roll out interdisciplinary, participatory, and action-based research initiatives to measure how learning and practising music can affect children with hearing loss, seniors with cognitive and motor impairments, as well as people suffering from mental health problems.

The MHRI is a cradle for interdisciplinary research partnerships that bring together top talents from the faculties of Arts, Health Sciences and Social Sciences, and the Professional Development Institute at the University of Ottawa. The Institute has also partnered with external organizations, including: Carleton University; the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research at The Royal, the Bruyère Research Institute, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) (Education), and the Lotus Centre for Specialized Music Education. These partners will contribute their expertise to a roster of forward-thinking and scientifically creative initiatives.

Researchers from the University of Montreal and the University of British Columbia will also be among the Institute’s valued research partners and steering committee members.

“The creation of the Music and Health Research Institute is innovation in action,” said Sylvain Charbonneau, vice-president, research. “The Institute’s multidisciplinary approach to the study of the interaction between music and health is distinctive and strongly aligned with our strategic research goal of enabling lifelong health and wellness. The high-calibre partnerships formed by Professor Comeau promise to advance research that will help improve the well-being of all Canadians.”

The partnerships and research that were developed through the Piano Pedagogy Research Laboratory and the Musicians’ Wellness Centre, both founded by Comeau and now under the umbrella of the Institute, were instrumental in establishing MHRI’s collaborative research synergies, including the Canadian Network for Musicians’ Health and Wellness, which answers musicians’ calls for better prevention, better treatment and better support for the physical and psychological problems associated with playing an instrument.

One MHRI initiative will advance research into the factors involved in maintaining the well-being, autonomy, and health of seniors, who will make up 25% of the population by 2030 according to Statistics Canada.

An elder plays percussions

“Music Making with Elderly People” is a major research initiative that the Institute will carry out with The Royal and Bruyère. It will examine how the brain functions responsible for attention, balance, gait, or a patient’s psychological and mental state can be affected by multi-tasking musical interventions that combine rhythmic bodily movements, ear training, tapping, clapping, vocal or instrumental improvisation, and playing percussion instruments. This partnership will give the uOttawa-based project an additional foothold at the Orléans-based campus of Bruyère and at The Royal, thus giving the project better access to a larger pool of seniors and patients with whom to push forward research.

“We are particularly excited to partner with the MHRI at uOttawa to generate and apply new knowledge to serve people living with mental illness”, says Florence Dzierszinski, who is president of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research at The Royal and vice-president, research, at The Royal. “We particularly look forward to our first project, which focuses on music and aging, and will see the establishment of a music and mental health research clinic, which will be designed by researchers, clinicians, program leaders, and people with lived expertise, and will be connected to our cutting-edge technological platforms, including our Brain Imaging Centre,” says Dzierszinski.

We are excited to be a key partner with the new Music and Health Research Institute and further study the benefits of music at Bruyère," says Heidi Sveistrup, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Bruyère Research Institute and vice-president, research, and academic affairs at Bruyère. "The science is clear – music making and moving to music have important cognitive, emotional and physical health benefits.”

Studying musical engagement and interest in children and youth with hearing loss is yet another key initiative for which the CHEO Research Institute will develop innovative clinical practices. This research will measure the effects of music learning on the central auditory, cognitive, and neurological systems of hearing-impaired children.

Dr. Ryan Rourke, a surgeon with the divisions of pediatric otolaryngology and audiology, sees opportunities to expand CHEO’s involvement in the MHRI to different departments with the goal of understanding how music can help children with a variety of conditions.

“MHRI is set to be a pioneering force in the field,” says Erin Parkes, PhD, the founder and executive director of the Lotus Centre for Specialized Music Education, a partner organization that helps students with exceptionalities. “There has been so little work done in this area, and this partnership has the potential to truly change the landscape in special music education.”

The Institute will strive to ensure that its research and knowledge mobilization activities reflect its commitment to increasing accessible, inclusive, and equitable access to musical interventions.

 

Logo with lines of colours and the MHRI acronym

 

Brian Ray – Vice-Dean Research at the Faculty of Arts

“The Faculty of Arts is proud to be a partner in this initiativeProfessor Gilles Comeau has consistently contributed to the advancement of research in the School of Music at the Faculty of Arts, as well as in several other fields. Professor Comeau’s scholarship is creative, engaged and rigorous; under his direction, we can expect exciting things from this new interdisciplinary research hub.”

Lucie Thibault – Dean at the Faculty of Health Sciences and member of the MHRI's steering committee

“The Music and Health Research Institute is a prime example of the priorities of our faculty’s strategic goal to support inter-and multi-disciplinary research. Music has a direct impact on our health and well-being and the Faculty of Health Sciences is honoured to collaborate closely with the Faculty of Arts to partake in the next steps of this valuable research.”

Rafik Goubran – Vice-President (Research and International), Carleton University

“Carleton University is pleased to partner with the University of Ottawa on this important initiative that will investigate the role of music in society and its impact on health outcomes, especially on conditions such as dementia and anxiety. This partnership is a welcome addition to the many successful collaborations between our two institutions and will enhance our continued research productivity and shared vision.”

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