Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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