Say What?! Musicians Hear Better Musicians don't have better ears than the rest of us, but several new studies find that musical training can improve hearing. The musically trained brain can distinguish between subtle pitch and tonal differences in sound that many of us cannot.

Say What?! Musicians Hear Better

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in California.


And I'm Michele Norris in Washington.

Here's some real music to your ears. Musical training can improve your hearing. That's the conclusion of several studies presented today in Chicago before the Society for Neuroscience. The studies found that serious musicians can perceive and remember sounds better than the rest of us.

As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, it's not because they have better ears.

(Soundbite of music)

JON HAMILTON: Sounds come in through the ears, but they travel through our nerves and get interpreted by our brains. Nina Kraus, who directs the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University, says that means your hearing can change even if your ears don't.

Dr. NINA KRAUS (Director, Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University): Your hearing system becomes tuned by the experiences that you have had with sound throughout your life.

HAMILTON: Kraus figured the hearing systems of musicians ought to be more finely tuned than those of other people. So, she tested their ability to do something that's challenging for most of us: understanding what someone is saying in a noisy room. Fifteen classically trained musicians and 16 non-musicians listened to a simple sentence. First, they heard it without any background noise.

Unidentified Woman: Sugar is very sweet.

HAMILTON: Then, against a backdrop of quiet conversations.

(Soundbite of quiet conversations)

Unidentified Woman: Sugar is very sweet.

HAMILTON: And finally, competing with some pretty loud conversations.

(Soundbite of loud conversations)

Unidentified Woman: Sugar is very sweet.

HAMILTON: Standard hearing tests had shown that the musicians' ears weren't any more sensitive than other listeners. But Kraus knew that their brains, shaped by years of training, had become very good at a similar task.

Dr. KRAUS: A musician will be listening to the sound of his own instrument, even though many other instruments are playing.

HAMILTON: Not unlike separating one voice from a crowd of voices.

Dr. KRAUS: So we wondered, would this skill, which involves your hearing, would it transfer from the music domain into the speech domain? And resoundingly, it does.

HAMILTON: Kraus says a closer look at musical brains may explain why. Tests show that sounds produce stronger electrical signals in musician's brain stems. And these signals offer a more accurate representation of pitch, timing and tone quality - three things that help us pick out a single voice in a noisy room.

Another study presented at the Neuroscience meeting suggests musical training could help children who are struggling with language.

Ms. DANA STRAIT (Doctoral Candidate, Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University): These kids seem to be impaired in the very areas that musicians excel.

HAMILTON: Dana Strait is a PhD candidate in Kraus' lab at Northwestern. She's also studied the oboe and piano for many years. Strait asked musicians and non-musicians to take a simple test.

Ms. STRAIT: They were asked to click a button every time they heard a specific sound, but not click a button to other sounds that they might hear.

HAMILTON: Musicians not only responded faster and more accurately, they were able to stay focused longer. Many children with dyslexia and other language problems do poorly on tests like this. Strait thinks musical training offers a way to improve their performance.

Ms. STRAIT: Musical experience can change how our brain interacts with sounds. It's almost like the brain's able to better pay attention to sound and better extract meaning from sound.

HAMILTON: That makes sense if you think about the brain and the hearing system as if they were muscles.

Mark Jude Tramo is a neurologist at Harvard and directs the Institute for Music and Brain Science.

Dr. MARK JUDE TRAMO (Director, Institute for Music and Brain Science, Harvard University): The way a tennis player is very good at arm wrestling with their tennis hand because their forearms are so strong, a musician who exercises that part of the brain is going to be able to do better on any task that involves auditory concentration.

HAMILTON: Tramo says Aristotle wanted music to be part of the Greek educational system because he believed it improved the mind. Now brain scientists have biological evidence that he was on to something.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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