Musicians have a keen awareness of the auditory world. Their ability to distinguish and organize tones is the backbone of the musical language they use to communicate. Musical training, however, appears to have benefits that reach well beyond melody and rhythm — it might strengthen the ability to hear in background noise.
Musical Training Benefits Hearing- A growing chorus of voices is suggesting that musical training may offset some effects of age-related hearing loss. A 2011 study in the journal PLoS One found that 45- to 65-year-old lifelong musicians could hear speech in noise better than non-musicians in the same age group. A 2015 study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that musical training might boost speech-listening skills that typically decline with age. For the most part, however, these studies compare musicians and non-musicians; they don’t measure improvement in people undergoing musical training.
Teaching to the Choir- Encouraged by this research, Frank Russo and his team at Ryerson University, in Toronto, have been researching whether joining a choir would improve the ability of those with a mild hearing loss to process speech in noise. Study participants undergo musical training at Ryerson but also use music-training software at home. One example of a training exercise: singing a musical scale while the choir director plays a recognizable melody over it. Participants receive before-and-after speech-in-noise evaluations.
“Brain Boot Camp”- Their research hinges on a measurement known as frequency. Tracking a musical note’s pitch and locking onto a person’s voice are both examples of recognizing a specific frequency. When you improve your ability to recognize pitch, you also improve your ability to distinguish a target voice. These tasks depend chiefly on your brain, not your ears. “Singing is sort of like brain boot camp. You’re sort of whipping your neurons into shape,” says Ella Dubinsky, a member of Russo’s team. So far they’re optimistic. According to Russo, “These preliminary findings suggest that short-term musical training is able to mitigate some of the age-related difficulty in hearing that is experienced by older adults.” So, sign yourself up for brain boot camp — join a choir or learn a musical instrument today to whip those speech-in-noise neurons into shape!
Parbery-Clark A, et al. Musical experience and the aging auditory system: implications for cognitive abilities and hearing speech in noise. PLoS ONE. 2011;6(5):e18082. Bidelman GM, Alain C. Musical training orchestrates coordinated neuroplasticity in auditory brainstem and cortex to counteract age-related declines in categorical vowel perception. Journal of Neuroscience. 2015;35(3):1240–1249. Steinberg SM, Russo F. The SMART Lab Singers: Improving Age-Related Hearing Difficulties Through Choir Lessons. http://smartlaboratory.org/our-choirs/ our-hearing-impaired-choir/. Accessed Oct. 26, 2017. Siegel R, Hsu A. ‘Like Brain Boot Camp’: Using Music to Ease Hearing Loss. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/05/31/530723021/like-brain-boot-camp-using-music-to-ease-hearing-loss. Accessed Oct. 26, 2017.