Music has always been part of our human heritage but it is only now that it is recognized as one of the last remaining mysteries that neuroscience has largely managed to unlock. Over the past three decades, Isabelle Peretz has made Montreal the global capital for the study of the musical brain. She was among the first to demonstrate the uses of music in medicine. She has shown how music can assist individuals with aphasia in speaking, be used as an analgesic and stimulate the brain of Alzheimer’s patients.
A visionary, Isabelle realized that the impact of her research could be expanded and sustained if she gathered others around her with a passion for the brain and music. In 2005, she therefore established BRAMS (International Laboratory for BRAin, Music and Sound research) on the Université de Montréal campus. In 2007, she received over $14 million from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to acquire the infrastructure necessary to make the unique facility a reality, garnering headlines in numerous Canadian and international newspapers in the process. Isabelle Peretz is a pioneer and attracts top students and scientists not only from Quebec but also from abroad.
Isabelle Peretz is a trained classical guitarist whose passion for music continues unabated 30 years after earning her doctorate in psychology from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Have you ever wondered what the purpose of music is or what is so special about it? When Isabelle asked herself those questions early in her career, it led her to incorporate her passion for music into her scientific research. Studying the musical brain was still uncharted territory, but it held promise. Not only did Isabelle innovate by blending neurological research and music, she also focused on people with average hearing at a time when the rare research in the area was centred solely on the musical elite—top-notch musicians and their brains. She pushed her conviction that musical skills, like language skills, are acquired in all human beings early and spontaneously, thus laying the biological foundations for musicality. Moreover, in 2015, she received the FRQNT award of excellence, the first woman to receive the award since its inception in 2010, underscoring a remarkable scientific career.
Isabelle Peretz has boldly combined arts and science and thus created a new field of multidisciplinary research. She has no qualms about imposing her vision, in contrast with conventional approaches. She firmly believes and her results confirm that an interdisciplinary approach opens up new research prospects, ushers in original new conceptual frameworks, shines new light on complex phenomena and brings innovative solutions to seemingly incompatible issues.
“Singing starts with your mother, even if your mother sings off key,” says Isabelle Peretz. For over 30 years, she has believed that music is special. Music is a participatory art that unites, brings people together and heals. Sought after for her eloquence and her multimedia presentations, Isabelle Peretz receives invitations to speak publicly across the globe. She is a regular guest on radio, TV and in documentaries both locally and internationally and is quoted in recognized publications such as Le Devoir, The Gazette, The New York Times, The Scientist, Scientific American, The Economist and Time Magazine.
Isabelle Peretz is much in demand by the community and responds enthusiastically. She contributed to “Musik: du son à l’émotion” at the Montreal Science Centre (2012-2013), an exhibit that was well attended and earned critical praise. In 2015, she completed a speaking tour of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean area entitled “Musique et cerveau: un duo gagnant pour l’apprentissage,” to promote music in education. She has been involved in the community since 2011 as a board member for the Société des Arts dans le Milieu de la Santé, which organizes over 600 concerts a year in long-term residential care facilities, and more recently as a member of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Art and Science Committee.
Not long ago, music was thought to be a matter for the imagination or a vestige of our distant past, forming along with language an undifferentiated function. We owe the decisive impetus of neurobiology and music to Isabelle Peretz, whose work has revealed that music is a fully fledged cognitive function that activates specific areas of the brain, demonstrating why music is universal. Music is certainly an art, a great art, but the fact that it uses circuits that are linked in part to pleasure suggests that it meets fundamental biological needs and may have played a key role in human evolution.
Furthermore, Isabelle Peretz is a tireless builder in a field in which women are rare. A notable exception is Brenda Milner of the Montreal Neurological Institute, who has become a living symbol of the advent of women in science. Isabelle Peretz aspires to a similarly lofty position, but at the bold intersection of music and neuroscience.