“Trauma, Music, and the Breath,” a new interdisciplinary research project involving several faculty and alumni of the Bienen School of Music, will examine how music might be used globally to improve children's health and well-being following the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was selected to receive funding for 2021-2022 from the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs as part of its Idea Incubation Process.

Project co-leads for “Trauma, Music, and the Breath” are alumni Heather Aranyi ’05 MMus, a faculty member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the McCormick School of Engineering; and Sarah Bartolome ’02 MMus, Bienen School associate professor of music education. Other Bienen faculty/alumni on the research team include Theresa Brancaccio ’82, ’83 MMus, senior lecturer, voice and opera; Amanda Draper ’14 MMus, ’20 PhD, lecturer, music education; Nancy Gustafson ’80 MMus, artist-in-residence, voice and opera; and Kurt Hansen ’83 MMus, senior lecturer, voice and opera.

The research team also includes Bienen alumna and School of Communication Lecturer Melissa Foster ’96, ’01 MMus (theater); Kellogg Professor Michelle Buck (leadership); Weinberg Professor Benjamin Gorvine (psychology); McCormick Professor Mark Werwath (Executive Director, Office of Professional Education); and Deborah Birnbaum of the Metropolitan Opera. Additional key Northwestern contributors are McCormick Professor John Rogers (biomedical engineering), School of Communication Professor Nina Kraus (neurobiology), and Weinberg Professor Galya Ben-Arieh (political science).

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Research team

The initial project will target children between the ages 5 and 11 processing the collective trauma of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The evidence-based, musical interventions developed will deploy group singing, rhythm, and the breath as tools for mitigating the multiple effects of this trauma, including the developmental disruptions stemming from interrupted schooling and reduced socialization.

In addition to disseminating their findings, researchers will also design tools to teach others how to use music and breath to support children processing trauma. Researchers will design pedagogical materials and training programs to be utilized by school personnel to cultivate healthy school environments in which children’s mental and physical safety and well-being are prioritized. These interventions will ultimately be mobilized in elementary schools and community centers around the world to help children process trauma, allowing them to thrive in their educational and home communities.

Additional research will investigate how the power of music and the breath may be leveraged with other populations of youth and adults as an intervention for mitigating the effects of many kinds of trauma beyond those associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the team’s interdisciplinary work, music and the breath will be widely understood as an effective intervention for improving human health and wellbeing. Ultimately, the Trauma, Music, and the Breath team aspires to create an institute dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of Music, Health, and Wellbeing, establishing Northwestern University as a global leader in this area.

  • Faculty Research
  • Sarah Bartolome
  • Theresa Brancaccio
  • Kurt Hansen
  • Nancy Gustafson