Musical training sharpens aging ears and brains

May 12, 2011

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(Getty/Matt Cardy)

As people age, it gets harder to pick out a sound, such as someone talking in a noisy environment.

It’s common complaint of older adults, and it can lead to social isolation and depression. 

But researchers at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory have found something that seems to keep those skills sharp: musical training.

The team studied about 40 older adults, and found that lifelong musicians did much better at picking out a signal from background noise, remembering what they just heard and quickly processing sound.

“It’s huge. It’s not a subtle effect,” said Prof. Nina Kraus, head of the lab. 

She said it may be that learning a piece of music conditions the auditory system – from the brain to the ear and back – to distinguish and retain sound components.

“A musician needs to holds that information in their mind while they resolve the physical complications of playing,” Kraus said. “So you get a lot of practice.”

Researchers don’t know yet how much musical training is needed to get the benefit – all the musicians in the study group had picked it up by age nine.

The study builds on research with children, which found a similar benefit in developing brains.

The findings are out in the journal, PLoS One