We often hear that learning to play a musical instrument is “good for us,” benefitting academic performance, language development, and other skills, but do these advantages extend to better hearing? Do they functionally remodel our nervous system to improve communication?
We know that older musicians who have played an instrument throughout their lives have enhanced auditory abilities compared with nonmusicians, both on behavioral measures ( PLoS One 2011;6:e18082 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0018082) and electrophysiologic measures ( Neurobiol Aging 2012;33:1483.e1-1483.e4 http://www.neurobiologyofaging.org/article/S0197-4580(11)00547-1/abstract; Front Aging Neurosci 2012;4:30 http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnagi.2012.00030/full).
But what about those of us who played music from the elementary through high school years and then gradually stopped as life got busy? Can childhood music lessons affect the way we process sound as older adults?
A recent study set out to answer this question ( J Neurosci 2013;33:17667-17674 http://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/45/17667.short).
THE CONSONANT-VOWEL TRANSITION
In the study, older adults (age 55-76) were categorized based on their history of musical training: 1) no training, 2) little training (one to three years), and 3) moderate training (four to 14 years).
The groups were matched on age, sex, hearing, IQ, education, current levels of exercise, and age at onset of musical training. Brainstem responses were recorded to the speech syllable /da/ in quiet and in two-talker babble.
The moderate training group had earlier peak latencies in quiet and in noise conditions than the groups with little or no music training. In addition, the moderate group's latencies were least affected by noise.
Interestingly, these latency benefits were specific to the consonant-vowel (CV) transition of the syllable.
Accurate encoding of consonants is important for speech perception; the rapidly changing formants are perceptually vulnerable, especially in noise ( J Acoust Soc Am 1955;27:338-352 http://scitation.aip.org/content/asa/journal/jasa/27/2/10.1121/1.1907526).
Compared with young adults, older adults have neural delays that are selective for consonants, not vowels ( J Neurosci 2012;32:14156-14164 http://www.jneurosci.org/content/32/41/14156.full). Older adults also have delayed cortical latencies for voice-onset time contrasts that correspond to their categorical perception ( Clin Neurophysiol 2003;114:1332-1343 http://www.clinph-journal.com/article/S1388-2457(03)00114-7/abstract).
Therefore, it is exciting to find that, in individuals with a moderate amount of musical training, benefits offset the typical age-related timing problems that may underlie deficits in speech-in-noise perception.
Using structural equation modeling, we found that cognitive function contributed more to the variance in speech-in-noise perception among individuals with music training than among individuals who have never taken lessons, which is consistent with the finding that older musicians have enhanced working memory ( PLoS One 2011;6:-e18082 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0018082) and attention ( Neurobiol Aging 2014;35:55-63 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0197458013002832).
Animal models have shown that early enrichment promotes enhanced auditory processing in adulthood ( J Neurophysiol 2004;92:73-82 http://jn.physiology.org/content/92/1/73). Similarly, in humans, music instruction may instill fixed changes in early life and prime the auditory system to interact more dynamically with sound.
So, parents and grandparents, keep those children playing!