Dr. Heather Sparling – Canadian Research Chair in Musical Traditions

Canada Research ChairCape Breton University professor, Dr. Heather Sparling, was recently renewed as a prestigious Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Musical Traditions. Dr. Sparling’s broad responsibility is to contribute to research on traditional music, a topic about which she is passionate. More specifically, she is exploring the relationship between music and language, as well as how music relates to memory.

Currently, much of Dr. Sparling’s work is focused on how music can be used as a primary means through which to learn threatened heritage languages, such as Gaelic. She strives to develop a greater understanding of how music can lead language learning and revitalization, not just support it.

“Sociolinguists predict that about 50 per cent of the world’s languages will die out within 100 years,” says Dr. Sparling. “We must learn how to motivate people to learn these languages if we want them to have a future.” She believes that one way this can be achieved is through connecting music, lyrics and language.

Dr. Sparling is preserving the Gaelic language through Language in Lyrics, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project that involves documenting as many of Nova Scotia’s Gaelic songs as possible, and digitizing them to be uploaded to the Digital Archive of Scottish Gaelic at the University of Glasgow, as well as making them available locally through the Beaton Institute and An Drochaid Eadarainn, an online and community-run Gaelic language repository. These songs will be accessible to anyone looking to expand their knowledge of the songs or language contained in them, and they will create the groundwork for a future dictionary of Gaelic in Nova Scotia.  

In addition to her work on Gaelic language and song, Dr. Sparling is examining the long-standing tradition of Atlantic Canadian disaster songs. “Disaster songs continue to be written in very large numbers to this day,” says Dr. Sparling. “A Google search for the name of any Canadian disaster and the word ‘song’ will nearly always provide results.”

For example, within days of the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April 2018 when sixteen people mostly teenagers on their way to a hockey game were killed and thirteen were injured, several disaster songs appeared online. Smitty Kingston of Kingston, Ontario shared his song, “Leave a Stick By the Door,” after a sleepless night following the devastating news.

Dr. Sparling’s work explores the human tendency to create disaster songs as a way to cope with trauma and tragedy, proving their important social and cultural role. A better understanding of that role will result in an increased capacity to better support those affected by disasters.

For Dr. Sparling, a highlight of being a Canadian Research Chair is that the $500,000 in funding over a five-year period, affords her the funds and time to focus on research and connect local projects with partners and collaborators internationally. She says the role has helped her to acquire a broader view of CBU’s research culture along with the research culture of Canada as a whole.

“I am humbled by the scholarly community’s faith in my ability to produce and promote strong research, and hope that I can support my colleagues with their own research ideas and plans,” says Dr. Sparling.