I don’t know about you, but when I am stressed by loud noise, my vocal sac coloration decreases and I’m just not as attractive as I can be. I have tried everything in my makeup kit to improve things, but alas, background noise can be deadly.

Thankfully I am not a European Tree Frog though.

An interesting experiment  was carried out in Lyon, France and published in Conservation Biology.  These researchers recorded normal highway traffic noise and then played it back 24/7 to 20 male frogs, for ten days.  After the ten day period, the vocal sac coloration had significantly decreased and the stress level, as measured by corticosterone levels from the frog saliva, had increased by 58%. 

European Tree Frog. Courtesy of waza.org

Weakened immunity was also found after the noise exposure and the phytohaemagglutinin swelling test indicated that noise-exposed frogs were 19% weaker than control frogs kept in a quieter environment. 

And of course, the vocal sac was much paler-colored in the noise-induced group of frogs which, as everyone knows, is not great at parties and when trying to attract a mate.

Previous studies of environmental noise, whether for marine based life or land based life tended to concentrate on a disturbance of communication, and while that is certainly important, the effects of excessive environmental noise exposure can increase stress levels and have other sequalae that go beyond the coloration of our skin.

One of the reasons why the United Kingdom is leaving the EU is because it does not have any European Tree Frogs. Courtesy of www.wikipedia.org

Of course, this is not new and we have known for decades that children learn better in schools that are quiet with significantly improved reading scores.  In fact, there is one case study performed in New York by Arlene Bronzaft showing that children in a quiet part of a school away from railway tracks had a significantly higher reading ability than those same, age matched children who were unfortunate enough to have a classroom adjacent to the railway.

Now, music is not noise.  Well,…actually it is.  When it comes to the complex time varying attributes of music or that of speech, or that of noise, there really isn’t that much difference.

Noise and music can be very similar in spectral and temporal make-up.  Yet, one is considered pleasurable and the other abrasive- it really is all a matter of perspective.  Perhaps if the European tree frog underwent some behavioral cognitive therapy, perhaps the road noise would not be as bothersome to them?  

 

I have long been concerned that perhaps the musician is not the best type of research subject when it comes to assessing how a particular hearing aid algorithm or circuit may represent amplified music.  Researchers, such as Dr. Nina Kraus, have spent their entire working careers trying to figure out what makes a musician tick.  And ultimately the strategies used, and possibly even the structure of the musician auditory system, may not be extendable to those of us who merely play (or listen to) music.

I play several instruments but my son refers to me as a “third rate musician”- only a family member can be so honest!  But he is quite correct and I have no delusions.  I can read the music, perform the technical pushing of strings down on my guitar, or levers down on my clarinet, and even add some of my own flavor to the prosody of the sound, but ultimately I merely function as a machine while playing music.  Even while playing jazz, I may know intellectually that we are using a II-V-I turnaround but even then I am glancing over at the piano player, notes that he is playing an F#, and I assume that we are either in the key of G or D, and then I convert to my B flat clarinet and play the in the right key… of course, by then, we are into a different key, but I may get a few bars in without hitting too many of the wrong notes.  I am working hard to become a second rate musician!

My son Shaun in front of his MIDI based softare/hardware workspace. Courtesy of www.Chasin.ca

This is in contrast to another (real) musician who can “feel” the music and go beyond the notes written on the page. 

One may argue that it’s only a matter of practice and although that may be true, it does demonstrate that people playing music- i.e., musicians- are not necessarily the same type of creature.  The same undoubtedly is true of the person listening to music.  My son can hear a “dropped 4th” and an added “9th”, but I just hear the music.  I may admit that it sounded different or odd but that would be the full extent of my musical analysis.

I just completed a several year study of a new hearing aid algorithm and circuit for musicians and non-musicians.  Both groups fared far better with the new circuitry and I can say without reservation that hearing aids using this new circuitry will improve the ability of musicians and non-musicians to perceive and enjoy music.  But the musician group fared much better than the non-musician group.

This is not a new finding.  For a wide range of tasks- musical or otherwise- musicians perform better than non-musicians.  It does however, make one wonder whether using musicians as subjects will bias the results.  Like my musician son, musicians hear things that we mere mortals don’t.

And this is further complicated by a further division of musicians into sight readers vs. those who play by ear – guess which category I fall in to?

This question was posed by Eriko Aiba, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Informatics and Engineering at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, Japan and reported at a recent Acoustical Society of America meeting. The article was entitled How do musician’s brain work while playing?

In this study Dr. Aiba found that “some were able to memorize almost the entirety of two pages of a complex musical score — despite only 20 minutes of practice.”  This means that auditory memory may be helpful for memorizing music following short-term practice.

And auditory memory has been implicated in a wide range of tasks from learning a new language, to hearing in noise. Some can simply fill in the blanks better than others and are more accepting of background noise levels. People who have excellent auditory memories- either naturally or through training/therapy- receive and maintain information that others cannot.

In this recent study that I performed, the improvements were the largest for musicians when old and new technologies were compared.  There were still very large improvements even for the non-musicians though not quite as much.

The following graph is one result on my 20 subjects- ten of whom were non-musicians (red squares) and ten of whom were musicians (blue circles).  Both groups did significantly better with the new technology but the musician group did much better.  These data were compiled from the Device-Oriented Subjective Outcome (DOSO) Scale by Robyn Cox and her colleagues (2014).

Differences between Musicians and Non-Musicians using the DOSO with new hearing aid technology. (From Chasin, 2017, in press).

I am not sure that I am just being silly by questioning whether musicians have an unfair advantage when it comes to blinded research- it’s not as if non-musicians in this study did not perform significantly better with the new technology and I am just “hiding” this fact from the peer reviewers.  Both groups did significantly better; just one group did really quite well.