Want to keep your hearing? Musical training may help, study finds

EVANSTON, IL–When it comes to the relationships between musicians and hearing, things can get pretty complicated. As Pete Townshend of The Who and many other old rockers have told us, playing music too loudly for too long without proper protection destroys hearing. And even classical musicians are known to be risk for noise-induced hearing loss.

On the other hand, people who make their living by making music generally develop and maintain more acute hearing into old age than most of the rest of the population. Dr. Marshall Chasin blogged about this a while ago at Hear the Music. In his post, he reported research findings showing that a 70-year-old musician’s ability to correctly identify speech in noise was similar to a 50-year-old’s non-musician’s ability. He added, “Auditory decline is inevitable as a function of age but it can be delayed.”



Last week, findings by researchers at Northwestern University appeared online in the journal Neurobiology of Aging demonstrating that age-related delays in neural timing can be avoided or offset with musical training.

A press release from Northwestern described the research conducted by Nina Kraus, PhD, a neuroscientist at that University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, and her co-authors, Alexandra Parbery-Clark, Samira Anderson, and Emily Hittner.

The researchers measured the automatic neural responses of 87 normal-hearing adults to speech sounds delivered to them as they watched a captioned video. The musician participants in the group had begun musical training before age 9 and engaged consistently in musical activities through their lives. The non-musicians had had no more than 3 years of musical training.

Kraus explained that by measuring the automatic brain responses of younger and older musicians and non-musicians to speech sounds, she and her co-investigators discovered older musicians had a distinct neural timing advantage over older non-musicians.

She added that the study did not demonstrate that musicians have an advantage in every neural response to sound. “Instead,” she stated, “this study showed that musical experience selectively affected the timing of sound elements that are important in distinguishing one consonant from another.”

Or, as the authors write in Neurobiology of Aging, “Our results show distinct effects of aging and musicianship on the neural mechanisms responsible for encoding the different components of a stimulus. Specifically, our findings indicate that aging negatively impacts the encoding of noise bursts (i.e., onset) and transient frequency sweeps (i.e., formant transition) but not stable frequency components (i.e., vowels).”

In their conclusion, the authors say: “We posit… that lifelong musical experience is analogous to a long-term auditory training program, in that precise subcortical response timing is sustained through the maintenance of intricately balanced excitatory and inhibitory subcortical neural networks. Although our results speak to the positive effect of musical experience on the aging process, they also hold broader significance: musical experience protects against age-related degradation in neural timing, highlighting the modifiable nature of these declines.”