Over the past few decades, research across a variety of disciplines suggests that music training provides benefits far beyond learning how to simply play an instrument. Music lessons have been correlated with better grades and higher Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores, as well as improved language, memory, and attention skills in school-aged students. New research from Northwestern University, however, suggests that musical experience offers more than just a boost in the classroom. In fact, just few years of musical training in childhood seems to have quite long-term effects, counteracting some common effects of age-related auditory decline.
A benefit to the aging auditory system
As we age, natural alterations in brain structure and function lead to weakened cognitive abilities. Even healthy elderly people report changes in perception, attention and memory as they age. Similarly, older adults also experience changes to their hearing.
“Many things happen in the elderly ear that all impact the ability to perceive complex sounds,” says Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins University. “We can look at these things from the perspective of the ear itself. One of the ways it changes over time is by losing hair cells. So basically, the hearing nerve in the ear stops responding as well as it should. Beyond that, the central nervous system also doesn’t function as well anymore, resulting in cognitive decline, which can make listening to speech more difficult.”
One task that can be very difficult for the aging is handling speech in noise. For example, at a cocktail party, an older listener can have difficulty discerning your speech over the hubbub of the crowd.
“Imagine all the sounds. You have music. You have people talking. Maybe there’s traffic outside. It’s really noisy,” says Benjamin Rich-Zendel, a researcher at the University of Montreal’s International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research. “Your brain has to be able to effectively guide your attention away from all that noise, filter it out and help you focus, so you can listen to and understand your friend. As we get older, this kind of filtering gets much more difficult.”
Fine-tuning the nervous system
In 2011, Nina Kraus at Northwestern University discovered that lifelong musicians between the ages of 45 and 65 were able to discern speech in noisy environments with much more ease than non-musicians. Following that research, Kraus’ laboratory has now demonstrated that older adults who were trained in music as children, but no longer actively played as an adult, also benefitted from their past training. The results were published in the Nov. 6, 2013, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Kraus and colleagues measured electrical activity in the auditory brainstem of adults ages 55 to 76 as they listened to a synthesized speech sound. While half the study participants had studied music as children, none had picked up an instrument in decades. Despite the fact those participants had left music in childhood, they still responded to the speech sound about a millisecond faster than those who had never had music training. The researchers also found that the more time spent studying music during childhood, the faster the older brain responded to the speech.
Kraus thinks music training “fine-tunes” the nervous system. “Presumably, music helps your brain to function more efficiently as an adult. It’s not about doing it for the sole purpose of creating professional musicians. It’s about strengthening the way your nervous system responds to sound,” she says.
Rich-Zendel and colleagues have found that musical training has benefits beyond the brainstem. His work suggests that musical training improves higher-level processing of auditory information in general. “We’ve seen that older musicians have a great ability to guide their attention and listen to what we think are the important aspects of the auditory scene,” he says. “So it’s not just that musicians have enhanced low-level auditory processing, they also seem to have better listening abilities.”
The importance of music to cognition
One potential issue with these studies is one of causality: Are elderly adults with musical training showing benefits because of the training itself? Or, perhaps, there is something special about their brains that drew them to music in the first place? Kraus says it remains an open question, but they do control for as many factors as possible in their studies.
“This is why we need to do longitudinal studies so we can see the changes to the brain over time,” she says. “But it’s clear that experiences we have early in life very much influence the way our nervous systems develop, and music is no exception.”
Despite the difficulty in teasing nature from nurture in this instance, Limb says that even if you have a natural aptitude for music, there’s bound to be a benefit from the training itself. “Think about athletics. It might be that people who become runners tend to naturally run fast. But with training, those runners are optimizing their system. The training is resulting in a certain amount of neural and body plasticity that makes them better. I think the same thing is happening in musicians—so, regardless of causality direction, it would make sense that the training itself is also associated with these changes.”
This is why Limb, Kraus, and Rich-Zendel are staunch advocates for music education. Kraus argues it is a critical part of learning. Limb worries that, as more music programs are cut due to budget constraints, future generations will suffer for it.
“Policy makers have long viewed the arts broadly as entertainment and cultural artifact. But more and more, research is suggesting that the arts are as essential part of the human experience and an essential way to educate people’s brains,” he says. “If we cut these things out, I think it will lead to a society that is less adaptable, less innovative, less forward-thinking, less open-minded and less intellectual. To me, cutting music programs is a short-sighted response to a situation where there’s resource constraint.”
To see slides and descriptions of Nina Kraus’ research, visit her website at http://www.soc.northwestern.edu/brainvolts/.