Menus Subscribe Search

Musicians Hear Better Into Old Age

• September 13, 2011 • 4:54 PM

Canadian researchers find playing a musical instrument delays the onset of age-related hearing decline.

Musicians retain the ability to distinguish speech in noisy conditions far longer than non-musicians. That’s the key finding of a just-published study by two Canadian researchers, who report playing music seems to delay the decay in an aging brain’s central auditory processing system.

“This finding suggests that continued practice throughout life may alleviate some of the age-related decline in speech perception often experienced by older adults,” Benjamin Rich Zendel and Claude Alain of the Rotman Research Centre and University of Toronto report in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Zendel and Alain conducted a study of 74 musicians ranging in age from 19 to 91, and 89 non-musicians ranging in age from 18 to 86. The musicians had started training no later than age 16, had at least six years of formal music lessons, and were still practicing regularly. Non-musicians had no more than two years of musical training of any kind, and did not play an instrument.

Wearing earphones, the participants completed four auditory tests which measured different hearing-related skills. One assessed pure tone thresholds, the ability to detect sounds that grow increasingly quieter; another measured the ability to detect a short gap in an otherwise continuous sound; a third measured the ability to detect the relationship between different sound frequencies.

The fourth and final test measured the ability to hear speech in a noisy environment. Participants heard — or attempted to hear — a series of six sentences against varying levels of background noise. Those who identified more of the sentences’ key words were given higher scores.

“We observed that musicians experienced less age-related decline for both gap-detection and speech-in-noise thresholds,” the researchers report. “For speech-in-noise thresholds, the relationship between practice and performance suggests that the accumulation of practice over many years may result in preservation of this ability by musicians.”

They add that there was no difference between musicians and non-musicians on the first test, which measured the detection of increasingly softer sounds. (Depending on the genre of music one plays, this ability could actually be impaired; a 2006 study of amateur pop and rock musicians found a significant minority suffer from tinnitus and hypersensitivity to sound.)

This finding suggests musicians aren’t better than non-musicians at hearing sounds against a quiet background. Rather, their brains are better able to make sense of the jumble of sounds they come in contact with.

Why would this be? “One possibility is that continued practice of a musical instrument may enhance cognitive reserve,” Zendel and Alain write. “The continued practice of a musical instrument may also result in greater neural efficiency, greater neural capacity, or the ability for compensation via the recruitment of additional brain regions during audition processing.”

“Being a musician is not a panacea in terms of preventing age-related cognitive decline; however, there are numerous benefits,” the researchers note. “Being a musician is a highly demanding cognitive activity … requiring highly developed working and long-term memory, in addition to integrated and precise auditory, motor, sensory and visual processing.”

All that stimulation, it seems, keeps the brain sharp in a variety of ways. This study provides one more example.

If, at age 75, you can easily hold a conversation amidst the din of a crowded restaurant, thank your music teacher — and the parent who insisted you practice.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?


August 15 • 8:32 AM

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.”


Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.