Music and Hearing

Does playing music lead to less age-related hearing problems or do people without hearing problems continue to play music?

Hearing studies have shown that trained musicians have highly developed auditory abilities compared to non-musicians but a new study concludes hearing abilities in musicians and non-musicians differs, across the age spectrum from 18 to 91 years of age, and that musicians retain a keener ability to detect and discriminate acoustic information from the environment.

The investigators set out to determine if lifelong musicianship protects against normal hearing decline in later years, specifically for central auditory processing associated with understanding speech. Hearing problems are prevalent in the elderly, who often report having difficulty understanding speech in the presence of background noise. Scientists describe this as the “cocktail party problem”.

In the study, 74 musicians (ages 19-91) and 89 non-musicians (ages 18-86) participated in a series of auditory assessments. A musician was defined as someone who started musical training by the age of 16, continued practicing music until the day of testing, and had an equivalent of at least six years of formal music lessons. Non-musicians in the study did not play any musical instrument.

Wearing insert earphones, participants sat in a soundproof room and completed four auditory tasks that assessed pure tone thresholds (ability to detect sounds that grew increasingly quieter); gap detection (ability to detect a short silent gap in an otherwise continuous sound, which is important for perceiving common speech sounds such as the words that contain “aga” or ata"); mistuned harmonic detection (ability to detect the relationship between different sound frequencies, which is important for separating sounds that are occurring simultaneously in a noisy environment); and speech-in-noise (ability to hear a spoken sentence in the presence of background noise).

They found that being a musician did not offer any advantage in the pure-tone thresholds test, across the age span. However, in the three other auditory tasks – mis-tuned harmonic detection, gap detection and speech-in-noise – musicians showed a clear advantage over non-musicians and this advantage gap widened as both groups got older. By age 70, the average musician was able to understand speech in a noisy environment as well as an average 50 year old non-musician, suggesting that lifelong musicianship can delay this age-related decline by 20 years.

Most importantly, the three assessments where musicians demonstrated an advantage all rely on auditory processing in the brain, while pure-tone thresholds do not. This suggests that lifelong musicianship mitigates age-related changes in the brains of musicians, which is probably due to musicians using their auditory systems at a high level on a regular basis. In other words, “use it or lose it”.

The study was led by Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and is published in the Psychology and Aging.

Very interesting. Thanks Bill.

Hearing loss among certain classical musicians is more pronounced than average. Those who sit in front of the trombones are especially at risk, as are conductors. Yet, they continue to play as well.

I suspect experience carefully listening to music also allows again audiophiles to discern which system sounds better, even though their hearing is compromised by age.

I have this “cocktail party problem” badly. As soon as the background noise goes up, I can’t hear any conversations and I just sit with a polite smile on my face - and I’m only 42. It bothers me more than I can express.

On the flip side - my favorite amp builder has said more than a few times he trusts my ears. I spot distortion like bat homing in on dinner. I catch some phase shift and details, especially reverb details that others don’t, and not just while critical listening - but even when I walk into a room…it’s like my brain is measuring the sound reflections the second I walk into a room - I just can’t help but evaluate every room I walk into, or wonder about how much sound absorption baffles would help tame noise in an office or restaurant.

My point being, I’ve had discussions with amp builders and musicians about how it could be that I have trouble hearing normal conversation, but I can pick out details in music, live or recorded, or simply the “sound of a room” in what would be considered above average detail. From the writing above, my limited skills as a hobby guitar player wouldn’t count me as a “musician”, but, I think like all things about the brain, if one part is deficient, the body/brain tries to compensate by picking up the slack in other areas. My amp builder friend has noticed that older people who have been tested and are known to be deficient or flat out deaf in upper frequencies, still can “hear” those frequencies depending on the gear being used. He theorizes that the brain recognizes the harmonic content, and fills in the blanks from memory. So even though a lot of the information is missing, the brain recalls what cymbal or violin sounds like, and takes the information it’s given and simply…fills in the blanks. A few weeks ago in one of Pauls posts, he posted a sound bite that reinforced this theory. It was a jumbled up, distorted, heavily processed recording that made no sense. But then they played the sound bite back without the added processing so you could hear the words that were in there. Then, in the third playback, the original jumbled bite is played, and you can absolutely pull out the words in all the mess! Again, proof that the brain fills in the blanks by working off of past information.

In my case, my hearing has shifted. I’m obviously missing something - I’ve always had trouble with different tones. Even when I was 16-18, tuning a guitar was a real chore for me (thank Zeus for digital tuners!). But I could instantly pick out different tones and textures and harmonics. So due to my deficiency, my brain must be compensating by focusing on the texture and harmonics - and this shift helps me to hear certain things better than average.

Combine all this together, and it makes sense that a musician, especially one trained for many years and still practicing - has much more reference information and experience. So the brain is probably filling in the blanks, and shifting it’s focus on other areas of the sound to compensate.

On a slightly different thread, I think our focus also makes a difference. I have friends who I know have great hearing, but their focus is…well, lacking. They simply can’t keep the focus on what’s going on around them, consciously or subconsciously, so they simply miss these details.

Just my thoughts on the subject…I’ve always got stuff like this rattling in my head, and talking with smart people helps me “fill in the blanks” LOL

Great post, LR!

This is precisely what I had on mind when referring to classical musicians with hearing loss. Excellent descriptions and examples.

From your posts it is apparent you have a great set of ears, but I am really sorry to learn of your hearing loss. I am terrified of losing any ability to hear, although I am certain I already have. I am very careful to always use ear plugs, noise reduction headsets, etc. when cutting the grass, using a chain saw, motorcycling, etc. Age will eventually do all of us in however.

Hearing is funny stuff. I too have the “cocktail party syndrome,” apparently not as badly as some, but certainly to some degree. This has been a problem for a long time. Yet my hearing in some ways is still very good (I’m closer 60 than 50). I’m a teacher and I can still regularly hear things said in the back of the room that were not meant to be overhead. When I was in elementary school, they gave us hearing tests. Usually I would have to stay behind and be re-tested. No one ever explained why, they just sent me off after the second round. I worried that there was something wrong with me. It occurs to me now that my hearing might have been better than average in some ways that were unusual.

I’ve heard that some people studying instruments learned by copying off records–a bass player copying Paul McCartney’s bass lines, for instance. I never could separate out individual instruments like that unless they were unusually clear on a particular track. (Related perhaps to the cocktail party thing?) But I could tune a harpsichord or fortepiano. Go figure. And I have always disliked loud sounds like chain saws, motorcycles, etc.