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Gilles Comeau


Gilles Comeau: What is music and health?

I am Gilles Comeau, I am a pro­fes­sor at the School of Music at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa. I am the found­ing direc­tor of the Music and Health Research Insti­tute at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa, and recent­ly I became a prin­ci­pal researcher at the Research Insti­tute in Men­tal Health at the Roy­al, where I am respon­si­ble for estab­lish­ing a research clin­ic in music and men­tal health.

There is a lot of research that tends to demon­strate that music can have an impact on sev­er­al health con­di­tions, on well-being, on men­tal health. I observed in the report that was pub­lished in 2019 by the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion that approx­i­mate­ly 40% of music research had been done with music ther­a­pists, and that the oth­er 60% was by musi­cians, musi­cian-edu­ca­tors, some­times health peo­ple who had music training.

At that time, I knew there was lot of research that had been done with music ther­a­pists, that look at how their work was hav­ing an impact. And music ther­a­pists often work one-on-one, and often see them­selves as health prac­ti­tion­ers who are work­ing towards help­ing indi­vid­u­als with cer­tain con­di­tion. So I decid­ed at that time to put the focus on musi­cians and music edu­ca­tors, because a lot less research has been done in that area.

They were already very much imple­ment­ing their pro­grams in health and social set­tings, so I want­ed to be able to study what was hap­pen­ing and see how I could con­tribute with bet­ter engage­ment of musi­cians and music edu­ca­tors, for the health and well­be­ing of indi­vid­u­als and communities.

Gilles Comeau: On the impacts of music and health and strate­gies for mea­sur­ing these impacts

For peo­ple who have demen­tia, it real­ly has an impact on their well-being and qual­i­ty of life. Because we under­stand that music is not expect­ed to have a heal­ing impact on Alzheimers con­di­tion, but, real­ly has a sig­nif­i­cant impact on well-being and qual­i­ty of life. Even for peo­ple who suf­fer from depres­sion and anx­i­ety, it is also about being able to make the symp­toms less dis­turb­ing, and being able to improve well-being.

So what we do is that we try to mea­sure how it has an impact on their well-being: mea­sure the impact on anx­i­ety, mea­sure the impact on depres­sion, mea­sure the impact on the joy / the excite­ment of learn­ing new things. And we do also the stan­dard ques­tion­naires that are of often used to mea­sure the var­i­ous out­comes. There are spe­cial ques­tion­naires for peo­ple with demen­tia. There are ques­tion­naires for their care­givers. There are ques­tion­naires for their anx­i­ety lev­el, for their depres­sion lev­el, on flour­ish­ing, learn­ing new things, on joy, their qual­i­ty of joy as well.

Then we also have some bio­mark­ers that we want to use to demon­strate with the dif­fer­ent impacts it could have. And that could be some watch that you’re wear­ing sim­i­lar to Fit­bits that, for a peri­od of time, it shows the blood pres­sure, heart rate etc. So it will show if the music activ­i­ty at one point in the week is hav­ing an impact on that day, or the day that fol­lows. We will work things like that.

We work with log books on sleep pat­tern and the self-report on sleep, and it gives us a good indi­ca­tion of how it is affect­ing their sleep. Some­times we can do some cor­ti­sol lev­el with a sali­va test that helps us to mea­sure how things are improv­ing. We also look at the move­ment that they’re able to do, because a lot of the pro­gram we have are music and move­ment. The move­ment that they devel­op is a real indi­ca­tion of how they per­ceive music and we quick­ly see how the qual­i­ty of the move­ment change with­in a few weeks. You could also see how well they perceive.

Are they com­plete­ly off music, are they get­ting more with music, are they more sub­tle / sup­ple, so all of that shows a change that we can observe.

Gilles Comeau on his path to work in music and health

I was always pas­sion­ate about teach­ing, and I was fas­ci­nat­ing about how peo­ple learn.

I start­ed to teach music when I was 16 years old, teach­ing piano to young peo­ple but also to lit­tle groups of stu­dents and preschool­ers. I was fas­ci­nat­ed with that aspects of teach­ing music and it has been a con­stant through­out my life. I was also always in inter­est­ed in health and help­ing peo­ple, and in my teens I had already start­ed to vol­un­teer by spend­ing time in a long-term care facil­i­ty. When I came to Uni­ver­si­ty, I was help­ing with the Chil­dren’s Aid Soci­ety and work­ing with chil­dren that were deaf and oth­er chil­dren that had severe cas­es of autism. That was always part of it and then through­out my career at the Uni­ver­si­ty, I did a lot of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary work with oth­er researchers. It was always part of the work I did to com­bine those aspects. And look­ing at learn­ing, look­ing at teach­ing, look­ing at var­i­ous groups, then look­ing at musi­cians health, phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

Even­tu­al­ly, I brought togeth­er a lit­tle bit of all those expe­ri­ences and pas­sion. I’m bring­ing back my train­ing in music edu­ca­tion and Del­croze, eury­th­mics, music and move­ment, or train­ing with per­cus­sion impro­vi­sa­tions. I’m bring­ing that back, but into health and social context.

I’m bring­ing back my inter­est with those groups of peo­ple and I’m also bring­ing my inter­est in research and in mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary research. I’ve had over two decades of expe­ri­ence work­ing in dif­fer­ent research cul­ture because every dis­ci­pline has its own way approach­ing research.

So it’s very famil­iar (to) me and I was able to group peo­ple from var­i­ous fields of research to put every­thing togeth­er for that work in music and health.

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