Introducing the Music and Health Research Institute

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Introducing the Music and Health Research Institute

Mikael Swirp, Research Associate, and Gilles Comeau, Founding Director, The Music and Health Research Institute


Playing without injury: a health practitioner works with a music student at the MHRI Musicians’ Wellness Centre. Photo: uOttawa.

We know that music is a rich human experience. It moves us emotionally, allowing for creative expression, physical activity, social engagement, and sensory and cognitive stimulation. But it’s the next part that really interests us: each of those outcomes can trigger psychological, physiological, cognitive, and behavioral responses that are causally linked with health and wellbeing. At the Music and Health Research Institute (MHRI), our aim is to provide an evidence-based model for interactive music-learning, centered on collaborations between musicians, music educators, caregivers, health providers, and the targeted populations.

Though the MHRI is still in its infancy, its team has hit the ground running thanks to a shared passion for the benefits of music. An impressive number of researchers in music, psychology, neurosciences, human kinetics, audiology, rehabilitation, and mechanical and computer engineering, as well as performing musicians, music educators, and health care professionals, have become closely engaged in the Institute’s wide research program. Many ambitious research plans are in the pipeline. The following examples of our objectives give a flavor of the Institute’s explorations.

Understanding the impact of music on sensory, cognitive, physical, and mental health conditions
Musical interventions are increasingly used alongside, or as alternatives to, pharmacological interventions to psychological and mental health conditions. But a scarcity of scientific evidence has made it difficult for music-based treatments to enter mainstream medical practice. It is essential that we test different approaches in order to identify the most effective care options for various conditions. For instance, we want to better understand how music-based activities improve motor control and cognitive development. Working with a children’s hospital, we are exploring the physical and cognitive benefits of offering a Dalcroze-based music and movement program to young children with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. We are also studying how a Dalcroze-based music and movement program can affect the mental health of older adults, particularly those living with dementia and/or depression. Isolating the key aspects of effective musical interventions allows us to develop more focused musical activities for different groups.

Developing innovative learning and training practices
Music is a vibrant world, but learning music is not a one-size-fits-all prospect. And while several research projects have begun examining the benefits of music-making in different medical contexts, their findings are not so easily applied in educational spaces.

For example, the Institute focuses on making music more accessible for people with disabilities. In partnership with the National Arts Centre and a school for special music education, we are creating opportunities for persons with disabilities to engage with music through sensory-friendly or relaxed performances in venues across Canada. Our goal is to create more accessible events by exploring which formats remove the most barriers to performance.

Developing innovative clinical practices for musicians and music teachers
As there is growing interest in the relationship between music and wellbeing, professional, amateur, and community musicians, as well as music educators, are applying their skills in care environments. We seek to better quantify their roles in these spaces. Recent studies show that while licensed music therapists offer about 40% of musical intervention in hospitals and healthcare facilities, mostly in one-on-one settings, the remaining 60% is offered by community musicians and music educators—in hospitals, mental healthcare facilities, long-term care centers, and education and community settings. As non-music therapists increasingly become facilitators of musical intervention, it is essential that we study their work through a therapeutic lens. For instance, we are currently exploring how community-based music-making—offered by professional and amateur musicians as well as music educators—can enhance wellness and quality of life for individuals living with dementia and their support communities (families, friends, caregivers).

Enhancing musicians’ mental and physical health
Many musicians develop physical and mental health issues related to their artmaking; these issues can cause distress, lead to setbacks in development, or even force musicians to stop playing or singing entirely. Performance anxiety is also on the rise among musicians, creating a unique wellness issue: despite widespread efforts to normalize the challenges of mental health in music learning, there remains a lack of evidence-based interventions that might address these conditions. To address this need, we have created the Musicians’ Wellness Centre to educate, conduct research, and provide treatment related to musicians’ wellness.

Making music accessible: fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion through music
Music is participatory; it engages people in an active and co-creative process. But marginalized populations, such as immigrants, visible minorities, and low-income families, have faced barriers to participation across many musical disciplines. With that in mind, we seek to use music-making to develop cultural inclusion and decrease isolation. With a community social service center, we are exploring how a community choir and music and movement programs can benefit recent immigrants and low-income families. As music is a means through which social habits can be developed, expressed, and established, it might play a unique and powerful role in overcoming exclusion and fostering diversity.

Music has the power to generate profound and meaningful experiences in cultures across the world. As we dig into these meaningful experiences, exploring the interactions between music and health and then developing new practices, we do so because we have experienced the positive health effects of music in our own lives. If we can enhance our understanding of the mechanisms at play through innovative and high-quality research, there is no limit to the number of people we can help.


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