Therapeutic music and movement groups strike a chord with participants and researchers

If you’ve ever cranked up the tunes while on a road trip or danced in your kitchen to your favourite song, you already know that music has a seemingly magical ability to make us feel good. Music can evoke emotions, reduce stress, help us relax, and even turn a bad mood into a good one – but even though the influence of music on our mood is well known, there is still much to learn about the use of music in a therapeutic sense.

A unique research-based initiative is bringing the joy of music to clients at The Royal and using the opportunity to answer some big questions about the effect it has on the brain and wellbeing.

In The Royal’s Geriatric Psychiatry Program, music and movement groups for clients take place on a weekly basis. 

Laura Willsher and Dr. Jihye Kang
Recreation therapist Laura Willsher and Dr. Jihye Kang, music and movement instructor.

Imagine a big sunny room with chairs and wheelchairs arranged in a big circle. At the appointed hour, Dr. Jihye Kang, the music and movement instructor, takes her place at an electronic keyboard on one side of the circle and starts to play. 

Kang leads the group through a series of activities to get them engaged and moving with the music in different ways. For example, the group is instructed to match their actions to the music by moving their hands and feet lightly to the rhythm of soft music or in a more pronounced way to loud music. At other times, they mirror each other, tap a drum, or follow a beat. Partway through the hour, participants are given bright red bouncy balls and asked to move them up and down or side to side while listening for musical cues. When the music stops, they freeze.

It’s gentle, social, and fun – there is laughter when a ball escapes across the room; hand clapping and toe-tapping when Kang enthusiastically hammers out a jazzy rendition of “Happy Birthday.” One person is moved by the music and stands up with a flourish, and another wakes from her wheelchair and smiles, holding her ball closely.

Laura Willsher, a recreation therapist in the Geriatric Psychiatry Program, supervises the music and movement group on the inpatient unit.

“The group offers participants a medium for communication and self-expression, particularly for those who have experienced functional losses in these areas,” says Willsher. “With our population, I have witnessed active engagement from participants who are often indifferent to group activities or detached from social interaction. In this context, I appreciate the value of music and rhythm as means of connection – to oneself and to the environment – and as a positive influence in patients’ path to well-being and recovery.”

Movement and music groups are expanding to The Royal’s Mood and Anxiety Program. On April 3, a new music and movement group that integrates research and care launched through The Royal’s Client and Family Hub, which is free of cost and open to all current and former Royal clients.

So why music and movement, and not just music?

“It’s music and movement because there is a strong link between the two,” explains Dr. Gilles Comeau, the director of the University of Ottawa Music and Health Research Institute (MHRI) and senior scientist at the University of Ottawa Institute for Mental Health Research (IMHR) at The Royal.

“The benefit of music increases considerably when people are engaged with it, as opposed to just listening.”

Comeau, whose own work explores the interconnections between music and mental health, is leading the development of a music and mental health research program at The Royal – focusing on how individuals respond biologically, behaviourally and socially to music and the impact of music interventions through surveys, advanced brain imaging, and electroencephalography (EEG) (a method to measure spontaneous electrical activity in the brain).

In the geriatric music and movement group, researchers are administering various tests to confirm the effect of music and movement classes. These include surveys to measure overall well-being and quality of life, anxiety and depression, sleepiness and quality of sleep, social isolation, and physical frailty. Surveys are conducted before and after each music and movement group, and a full battery of tests is administered before and after ten weeks of sessions.

It’s interesting to note that just as symptoms and experiences of mental health conditions vary from individual to individual, so do responses to music. This is part of the challenge.

“The benefit of music increases considerably when people are engaged with it, as opposed to just listening.”“We are working on developing individualized approaches to music as a source of wellbeing, based on what works, for whom, and in what settings,” explains Comeau. “It's one thing to say that music and movement works, but if we take dementia, for example, maybe it works mostly for people in the early- and mid-stage. Maybe for people who are more advanced, it needs to be something else.”

“It's also just as important to study and understand the people for whom music doesn't seem to have any impact; very often they're forgotten in a study,” he adds.

Through her experience with the group on the geriatric inpatient unit, Willsher has observed that the music and movement groups don’t resonate with everyone. “Responses have been mixed,” she says. I think this depends largely on the individual, their history, and where they are at on their journey.”

Comeau is grateful to The Royal for building a music and mental health program and is especially appreciative of the vision and enthusiasm of Dr. Florence Dzierszinski, president of the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR) at The Royal and vice-president of research, for bringing music to The Royal. 

“The music and movement groups are a great example of the connection between research and care,” says Comeau.

He hopes that by demonstrating the wellness benefits of community-based music programs for individuals experiencing mental health challenges, healthcare professionals will have the data they need to integrate – and maybe even prescribe ­– evidence-based musical programming as a way of improving health and well-being for people of all ages.

The official inauguration of The Royal’s music and mental health research clinic is taking place November 2024. Click here to sign up for our newsletter for more information as we get closer to the date. 

Outline of a head with music notes forming a brain.

Music research at The Royal

In 2023, Dr. Gilles Comeau received a $1M grant over four years from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) for a project called: Community-based music intervention as a means to enhance health and well-being of people living with dementia and bring support to their family and caregivers. This project is implementing and evaluating two community-based music interventions that will enhance the well-being and quality of life of people living with dementia and family/friend caregivers, and reduce risk and/or delay the onset and progression of dementia. The project targets at-risk populations (55+) living in the National Capital Region and rural communities in Northern Ontario.

Partnerships in the community

The music and movement program is offered through our partners at: Bruyère (in the geriatric day program and the memory clinic); the Dementia Society of Ottawa; the Vanier Community Services Centre; the Canadian Mental Health Association (Ottawa branch); the Performing Arts Lodges (PAL) Toronto. Programming is also being developed in Northern Ontario.