Objective: To investigate the effect of musical training on speech-in-noise (SIN) performance, a complex task requiring the integration of working memory and stream segregation as well as the detection of time-varying perceptual cues. Previous research has indicated that, in combination with lifelong experience with musical stream segregation, musicians have better auditory perceptual skills and working memory. It was hypothesized that musicians would benefit from these factors and perform better on speech perception in noise than age-matched nonmusician controls.
Design: The performance of 16 musicians and 15 nonmusicians was compared on clinical measures of speech perception in noise—QuickSIN and Hearing-In-Noise Test (HINT). Working memory capacity and frequency discrimination were also assessed. All participants had normal hearing and were between the ages of 19 and 31 yr. To be categorized as a musician, participants needed to have started musical training before the age of 7 yr, have 10 or more years of consistent musical experience, and have practiced more than three times weekly within the 3 yr before study enrollment. Nonmusicians were categorized by the failure to meet the musician criteria, along with not having received musical training within the 7 yr before the study.
Results: Musicians outperformed the nonmusicians on both QuickSIN and HINT, in addition to having more fine-grained frequency discrimination and better working memory. Years of consistent musical practice correlated positively with QuickSIN, working memory, and frequency discrimination but not HINT. The results also indicate that working memory and frequency discrimination are more important for QuickSIN than for HINT.
Conclusions: Musical experience appears to enhance the ability to hear speech in challenging listening environments. Large group differences were found for QuickSIN, and the results also suggest that this enhancement is derived in part from musicians' enhanced working memory and frequency discrimination. For HINT, in which performance was not linked to frequency discrimination ability and was only moderately linked to working memory, musicians still performed significantly better than the nonmusicians. The group differences for HINT were evident in the most difficult condition in which the speech and noise were presented from the same location and not spatially segregated. Understanding which cognitive and psychoacoustic factors as well as which lifelong experiences contribute to SIN may lead to more effective remediation programs for clinical populations for whom SIN poses a particular perceptual challenge. These results provide further evidence for musical training transferring to nonmusical domains and highlight the importance of taking musical training into consideration when evaluating a person's SIN ability in a clinical setting.