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Tune In or Tune Out: Age-Related Differences in Listening to Speech in Music

Russo, Frank A.1; Pichora-Fuller, M Kathleen2,3

doi: 10.1097/AUD.0b013e31817bdd1f
Research Articles

Objectives: To examine age-related differences in listening to speech in music.

Design: In the first experiment, the effect of music familiarity on word identification was compared with a standard measure of word identification in multitalker babble. The average level of the backgrounds was matched and two speech-to-background ratios were tested. In the second experiment, recognition recall was measured for background music heard during a word identification task.

Results: For older adults, word identification did not depend on the type of background, but for younger adults word identification was better when the background was familiar music than when it was unfamiliar music or babble. Younger listeners remembered background music better than older listeners, with the pattern of false alarms suggesting that younger listeners consciously processed the background music more than older listeners. In other words, younger listeners attempted to “tune in” the music background, but older listeners attempted to “tune out” the background.

Conclusions: These findings reveal age-related differences in listening to speech in music. When older listeners are confronted with a music background they tend to focus attention on the speech foreground. In contrast, younger listeners attend to both the speech foreground and music background. When music is familiar, this strategy adopted by younger listeners seems to be beneficial to word identification.

This study examined age-related differences in listening to speech in music. In the first experiment, word identification accuracy was assessed in different background conditions (music or multitalker babble). In the second experiment, recognition recall was measured for background music heard during a word identification task. For older adults, word identification did not depend on the type of background, but for younger adults word identification was better when the background was familiar music than when it was unfamiliar music or babble. The pattern of false alarms in recognition suggested that younger listeners consciously processed the background music more than older listeners.

1Department of Psychology, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; 2Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; and 3Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

This research was supported by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (to M. K. P.).

Address for correspondence: Frank A. Russo, Department of Psychology, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5B 2K3. E-mail: russo@ryerson.ca.

Received January 12, 2007; accepted February 5, 2008.

© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.