“Lifelong musical training appears to confer advantages in at least two important functions known to decline with age — memory and the ability to hear speech in noise,” said co-author Dr. Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.
Kraus and her research team showed that musicians (ages 45- to 65-years) excel in auditory memory and the ability to hear speech in noisy environments compared to their non-musician counterparts.
“Difficulty hearing speech in noise is among the most common complaints of older adults, but age-related hearing loss only partially accounts for this impediment that can lead to social isolation and depression,” said Kraus.
“It’s well known that adults with virtually the same hearing profile can differ dramatically in their ability to hear speech in noise.”
For the study, researchers tested 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians aged 45 to 65 for speech in noise, auditory working memory, visual working memory and auditory temporal processing.
The musicians — who began learning an instrument at age 9 or earlier and continue to play — outperformed the non-musician group in all but visual working memory, in which both groups showed nearly identical ability.
The experience of extracting meaningful sounds from a complex soundscape – and of remembering sound sequences – boosts the development of auditory skills, said Kraus.
“The neural enhancements we see in musically-trained individuals are not just an amplifying or ‘volume knob’ effect,” she said. “Playing music engages their ability to extract relevant patterns, including the sound of their own instrument, harmonies and rhythms.”
According to Kraus, music training “fine-tunes” the nervous system. “Sound is the stock in trade of the musician in much the same way that a painter of portraits is keenly attuned to the visual attributes of the paint that will convey his or her subject,” she says.
“If the materials that you work with are sound, then it is reasonable to suppose that all of your faculties involved with taking it in, holding it in memory and relating physically to it should be sharpened,” Kraus adds. “Music experience bolsters the elements that combat age-related communication problems.”
Under Kraus’ leadership, Northwestern researchers are studying musicians from childhood to old age to investigate how memory, attention and everyday sound-based activities are altered in the brain of a musician.
The study is published in the online science journal PLoS One.
Source: Northwestern University