An anatomist, Oliver Sacks writes in his book Musicophilia, would have no trouble recognizing the brain of professional musicians. The corpus callosum or the great bundle of nerve fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres, as well as areas of the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum, are enlarged in those who have studied music all their lives. Moreover, lifelong music training prevents the difficulties with understanding rapid speech that many of us experience as we age. But what about moderate amounts of music training? Can it also produce long-term changes in our brains, changes that reduce problems with speech perception? A recent paper in the Journal of Neuroscience indicates that this may indeed be the case.
Consider the syllable, “da.” It’s made up of a percussive “d” sound that last for about 50 milliseconds followed by a periodic or rhythmic “ah” sound that lasts much longer. The transition between the “d” and the “ah” sounds is called a consonant-vowel transition, and this is the type of fast-changing sound that becomes more difficult to hear as we age.
In the Journal of Neuroscience study, 44 adults between the ages of 55 and 76 sat in a sound-attenuated booth with electrodes attached to their scalp. The electrodes recorded their brainstem response to the “da” sound. During the experiment, the participants watched a muted, captioned movie while the “da” sound was played both in the absence and presence of external noise (a two-talker babble track). The participants fell into three groups based on their music training ie 1.) no music training, 2.) 1 to 3 years of instruction, or 3.) 4 to 14 years of training. In all other ways (IQ, education, current levels of exercise, and age of training onset), the groups were evenly matched. Significantly, none of the subjects had continued their music instruction after childhood. Even in the group with the most training, they had not played their instrument for the last 37 to 59 years!
Despite the large gap in time between music training and this experiment, the group with four or more years of music instruction performed significantly better on the hearing test. Their brainstem response to the transition from the “d” to the “ah” occurred more quickly, and this effect was even more prominent in the presence of added noise. The authors concluded that music training, albeit brief and occurring many years earlier, may set the stage for better auditory processing overall.
There’s a sad irony in all of this. With limited financial resources, music programs are often cut in our schools. Some consider music peripheral to education, not directly related to important learning. Yet, music training in the classroom may have important effects on auditory processing and speech perception, and, most importantly, music training produces benefits that last a lifetime.