The world is a very noisy place and much of what children learn, they have to learn listening in noise. Hearing in noise requires the ability to hear with both ears. Binaural hearing enables us to focus on the speech signal and ignore the noise. Language is a left-brain activity and the majority of the input to the right ear goes to the left brain. Our primary focus in working with children with hearing loss (and also children without hearing loss) is to develop language skills. Therefore, the right ear has been considered the more important ear. While the right ear certainly is critical, to hear in noise, we also have to build skills in the left ear, which sends the majority of the information going to the right brain.
Music and the brain
Nina Kraus, PhD, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, has studied the effect of musical training on the brain. She has demonstrated that musicians excel in vocabulary, reading, non-verbal reasoning, perception of speech in background noise, auditory memory and attention. She has concluded that musical training causes the brain to undergo neurological changes. For example, string players demonstrate a reorganization of the motor cortex related to the left hand, which performs extensive intricate fingering. There are many examples of brain changes in musicians explicitly involving auditory centers.
Music training and children
Music training is associated with increased vocabulary, reading and phonologic processing, attention and reasoning skills in children. Kraus reports on the tie in between musicianship and literacy. Learning to read is closely related to phonics and being able to decipher the sounds of language. So musical practice can hone the auditory system providing a channel towards literacy. Her research also demonstrates the relationship between music and hearing in noise.
Music and children with language learning disorders
Some of Kraus’s work supports music as a therapy for children with a language learning disorder and difficulties with speech in noise. Her work suggests that music can help children with auditory processing disorders improving listening in noise.
What does this mean for children with hearing loss?
Well, we do not absolutely know. But we do know that, in general, music can help develop the auditory brain. I have always encouraged children with hearing loss to study music because, as a rule, I think music is a good thing. In addition, we know that music is a right-brain activity and improving right-brain functioning improves the ability to hear in noisy situations. Since noise is a difficult problem for children with hearing loss, music training seems like a good idea. If, in addition, it has a significant effect on literacy, it is a win-win situation.