Warnings against listening to loud music because of its proven connection to hearing loss are well known, but did you know music can be good for your hearing? Music performed or listened to at acceptable levels—perhaps with protective listening devices, can help keep hearing fitness and brain elasticity. So suggests research done by Dr. Nina Kraus of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience’s department.
“We know that musicians have certain perceptual advantages over non-musicians, such as better auditory attention, memory, and listening skills.” (Dr. Nina Kraus)
Prior studies have proven that hearing loss is associated with increase risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but Dr. Kraus examined the other side of the coin--how listening can benefit the mind and ward against hearing loss. Dr. Kraus’s studies examined how our brain converts sound waves into brain waves and the increase of neurological functioning in musicians. Dubbed the Musician Effect, Dr. Kraus discovered brains are more efficient at converting these sounds and neurological processes are healthier when a person has had musical training.
“Music experience bolsters the elements that combat age-related communication problems.” (Dr. Nina Kraus)
Functions of hearing influenced by musical training are timing, pitch lock, pitch track, and processing, to name just a few. This exciting news has positive implications for preserving hearing fitness, because as the study reported on by PLoS ONE states,“While understanding speech in noise is a challenge for everyone, it becomes increasingly difficult as we age.” This loss of ability to focus in on a specific sound, say someone talking in a noisy restaurant, is one of the reasons that many people stop going out once they develop a hearing loss. It is also one of the hearing health problems that musicians are less likely to encounter.
Listening, it turns out, is indeed a skill one that musically trained people are not only better at, but continue to get better at as they age compared to their counterparts.
The most interesting part of this study suggested that the older the musician the greater the skills at discerning speech in noise. A seventy-year-old musician exhibited the ability to hear and discern sounds equal to that of someone 20 years younger. This learned capacity also has implications for brain plasticity, so if you don’t play an instrument, you might want to look into learning or at the very least take an interest in studying the music you listen to in order to discern elements like pitch, tone, or specific instruments.
“Music activates many parts of our brain stem.” (Dr. Nina Kraus)
Adapting declining auditory systems as we age, so we can continue to learn and play is an essential part in retaining brain elasticity. As Dr. Jonathan Peelle pointed out when speaking of his study on aging and the brain, “Our brains have to work with whatever the ears pass along. If someone has poorer hearing, the quality of this information won’t be as good, and that is going to impact how our brains deal with it.”
In other words, play and listen to music, and have your hearing checked regularly. Any decline in hearing should be immediately corrected in order to avoid health risks like dementia and Alzheimer’s, but also to enjoy the health benefits of listening to and playing music which has been shown to improve ability to communicate and language skills as we age.
If you'd like to learn more, see your hearing health provider. If you need help finding a hearing health provider click HERE to be connected with the largest network of trusted hearing health professionals in the nation!
Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. "Older musicians experience less age-related decline in hearing abilities than non-musicians." ScienceDaily, 13 Sep. 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.
Society for Neuroscience. "Musicians less likely to experience age-related changes in the auditory cortex." ScienceDaily, 16 Nov. 2010. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.
Kraus Nina, PHD. “Music and Language Shape How We Hear”, Northwester.edu.brainvolts Spring 07, taken on November 9, 2011