Music and Better Hearing: What's the Connection?

Dr. Russo's choir getting pitch-perfect.


by Debbie Clason for Healthy Hearing

July 20, 2017 - Here’s some good news for all the shower crooners and car radio rock stars out there -- in addition to reducing stress and increasing mental alertness, your hobby may also benefit your hearing. Specifically, it might improve the way you understand conversations which take place in noisy places.

That’s the preliminary finding of a study conducted by Frank Russo, professor of psychology and director of the Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology (SMART) Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto. Professor Russo and his SMART Lab colleagues study music’s effect on the brain. They are also interested in how aging affects hearing. Their research made them wonder -- why do older adults have trouble understanding speech in noisy environments?

Singing and Speech Understanding

“When people are matched for audiometry and age, musicians seem to have superior ability to distinguish speech in noise.” Professor Russo said. “It’s possible that musicians have innate abilities but it might also be because of their training. Our working hypothesis is that singing would develop fine-grained pitch perception, which would in turn support speech perception in noise. It seemed to my group that we really needed an experiment.”

To test their hypothesis, Professor Russo and graduate student Ella Dubinsky reached out to some of the older adults with hearing loss in Russo's database and asked them if they wanted to join a choir-- no musical experience needed. Participants signed on for a 10-week session which included vocal lessons, choir practice, computer homework, and, just for fun -- a performance at the end of their training. The first group was organized in 2014, the most recent concluded their voice training the first week of July, 2017.

In addition, the researchers established two other control groups. One simply listened to music while the other had no musical intervention at all. Periodically, researchers used scalp electrodes to track the auditory brainstem responses of participants in all three groups. Professor Russo said this allowed his team to measure how well the brain was coding sound, especially how it responded to specific speech patterns such as the steady portion of speech corresponding to vowels.

The result? The studies determined that the choir group’s brainstem response to sound improved after singing training. The other two groups showed no improvement.

“One of the advantages musicians have is that they can follow the pitch contour of voice,” Russo said, as he explained why the researchers decided to use voice training to test their hypothesis. “Voice is an instrument with variable pitch. When you’re matching a pitch, you have to have very fine pitch perception to match it perfectly. Not many instruments allow for this. String instruments are the exception; however, it would take us years to train an older adult to play a violin. Singing is something you can pick up relatively easy in older age.”

Besides, most people have some experience singing, even if it’s just in elementary school music class. And, Russo said, chances are good everyone can sing -- even those who may have been told otherwise along the way.

“In my own work and my colleagues' work, 96-97 percent of us can sing fairly well, meaning that we’re reasonably close to the pitch we’re trying to match,” he said. “We might have a horrible sounding voice and our timing might be bad, but most of us can match a pitch -- and with practice we can improve how well we match that pitch.”

Professor Russo said the number one complaint from older adults is that they have trouble hearing speech in noise. And while hearing aid technology has come a long way, they don’t completely address the problem. In the future, Russo and his SMART Lab colleagues hope to expand the study to include individuals who wear hearing aids. They’re also interested in studying how long the benefits last and exactly why this activity improves speech in noise comprehension.

Hearing and Social Benefits

“Participating in a group activity (like singing in a choir) provides cognitive and social benefits,” he said. “Those kinds of gains might be contributing factors. It would be useful to tease these things apart and do studies to determine what is driving the gains in speech in noise.”

“Right now we just know something good happens in the brain. Even if it does require people to do it into old age, singing is an intervention that will fit very nicely into their lifestyle. There are also various ways to improve your singing without joining a choir. Download an app for your smartphone. Sing in the shower. I think those things are likely helpful.”

There are also ways to improve your hearing even before you sign up for that community choir. The first step is to have your hearing tested by a qualified hearing care professional like one of those listed in our extensive directory. Hearing aid technology is available today to help you hear all the sounds of life, including your favorite music.



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