French author Victor Hugo once wrote, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” A new study suggests that musical skills can also help people understand spoken words buried in a noisy cacophony. This ability may help explain why music training seems to help some people with other forms of learning and could eventually lead to new therapies for children with autism and older people with hearing difficulty.
“The brain is set up with a lot of overlap for language and music,” says Laurel Trainor, a researcher who studies how infants acquire both language and music at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. “Many of the mechanisms used to process both are the same. And all of those rely on executive functioning—or memory, attention and the ability to inhibit [distraction].”
So might musical training help enhance executive function? Nina Kraus, the head of Northwestern University’s Audio Neuroscience Lab, decided to test just that.
“We reasoned that the nervous system works in economical and pervasive ways when it comes to speech and music,” Kraus says. “A basic musical skill is picking out a relevant signal from a number of other sounds—so we hypothesized that musicians may be better at hearing speech in background noise because of their training.”
Kraus and colleagues Alexandra Parbery-Clark, Carrie Lam and Erika Skoe evaluated participants as they listened to and then repeated back sentences presented in varying amounts of background noise. Those who had musical training, defined as ten or more years of musical study, were much better able to repeat the sentences than those without it. Kraus says the finding supports the argument that musical training may harness areas of the brain that improve executive functioning.
“There is a system of pathways that stretches anatomically from the cerebral cortex down through the brainstem all the way to the ear called the corticofugal network,” she says. “So we have this scaffolding, a true network in place that provides a top-down influence that tunes our sensory system to pick out meaningful sounds from ones that aren’t so important.”
The study, published in the Sept. 3 issue of Ear and Hearing, could influence future therapies for both older people who can have difficulty differentiating speech in noise and children with disabilities like autism or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Music therapy has been linked anecdotally to improved attention and social interaction in autistic children , though researchers are unsure why. For Catherine Lord, director of University of Michigan Autism and Communication Disorders Center, Kraus’s findings offer the beginnings of an explanation.
“People with autism often talk about getting overwhelmed by sound and say it’s hard to pull out what people are saying to them if it’s noisy or a bus happens to be driving by,” Lord says. “And if it’s possible to use music to help differentiate out the right sounds, that’s something that could be of great help.”
But Kraus, Lord and Trainor say that there is still a lot of work to be done before they can make any firm conclusions about the role of musical training as a therapeutic technique.
“There’s so much potential in what music may be able to do in special and elderly populations that’s, to date, been pretty much unexplored,” Trainor says. “And it’s time to start using good science and start exploring that.”