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Music Brain Connection

Hearing Loss, Music, and Brain Health

With hearing loss often comes the loss of the enjoyment of music and discourages many from listening, playing and singing even if they once did. Much research now says that can be a blow to brain health, cognitive functioning and more.

The Brain Connection

The Journal of Neurophysiology reports that as we age, the decreased ability to understand what people say when noise is present Is not just a function of our ears. While hearing loss is typically caused by damage to the hair cells within the inner ear and/or to the auditory nerves, new attention is being paid to subtler ways that our hearing can be impaired.

study published in PLOS-ONE found that damage to the synapses (the structures where signals are transmitted between nerve cells) in auditory nerve cells can contribute to reduced hearing sensitivity. Standard hearing tests don’t detect these types of impairment so there’s no way to know how many people may be suffering from so-called hidden hearing loss.

Musical and Auditory Attention

Now research suggests that musical training may benefit those parts of the brain that underlie “selective attention” to speech. Musicians display strengthened brain networks for what is called “selective auditory attention” that non-musicians do not. Music might provide a potential benefit to auditory attention and musical training may aid in the prevention and remediation of individuals with a wide range of attention-based language, listening and learning impairments. 

Listening and Playing

“There are few things that stimulate the brain the way music does,” says one Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist. “If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the aging process, listening to or playing music is a great tool. It provides a total brain workout.” Listening to music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness, and memory.

Canada’s Baycrest Health Sciences has uncovered why playing a musical instrument can help older adults retain their listening skills and ward off age-related cognitive declines. Playing piano, for example, improved the attention, memory and problem-solving abilities of 13 subjects in one study. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that learning to play a sound on a musical instrument alters the brain waves in a way that improves a person’s listening and hearing skills over a short time frame. This change in brain activity demonstrates the brain’s ability to rewire itself and compensate for injuries or diseases that may hamper a person’s capacity to perform tasks.

“Learning the fine movement needed to reproduce a sound on an instrument changes the brain’s perception of sound in a way that is not seen when listening to music.” Baycrest scientists also are looking at how a person’s musical background impacts listening abilities and cognitive function as we age. They are following how brain changes during aging impact hearing and the potential impact of musical training rehabilitation programs for this and other conditions.

Singing and Speech Understanding

In addition to reducing stress and increasing mental alertness, singing may also benefit our hearing. Specifically, it might improve the way we understand conversations which take place in noisy places.

A report in the Neuroscience of Singing shows that “when we sing our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. Singing fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative. When we sing with other people this effect is amplified.”

Preliminary findings at the Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology (SMART) Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto reinforces this notion. Interested in how aging affects hearing, they were also curious to discover why older adults have trouble understanding speech in noisy environments.

Matched for audiometry and age, they discovered that musicians seem to have superior ability to distinguish speech in noise. “It’s possible that musicians have innate abilities but it might also be because of their training. Our hypothesis is that singing would develop fine-grained pitch perception, which would in turn support speech perception in noise. “

To test their hypothesis, Professor Frank Russo and tea,  put together a choir– no musical experience needed. Participants signed on for a 10-week session which included vocal lessons, choir practice, computer homework, and a performance at the end of their training. The results demonstrated that the choir group’s brainstem response to sound improved after singing training. Two other control groups showed no improvement.

The Voice as an Instrument

“One of the advantages musicians have is that they can follow the pitch contour of voice. The 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. Singing is something you can pick up relatively easy in older age.”

Some 96-97% percent of us can sing fairly well, meaning that “we’re reasonably close to the pitch we’re trying to match. 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.”

Once again, the researchers identified the number one complaint from older adults – trouble hearing speech in noise. And while hearing aid technology has come a long way, they don’t completely address the problem.

Hearing and Social Benefits

“Participating in a group activity (like singing in a choir) provides cognitive and social benefits,” Russo said. “Those kinds of gains might be contributing factors. Right now, we just know something good happens in the brain. Even if it requires people to do it into old age, singing is an intervention that will fit very nicely into their lifestyle. That said you don’t have to join a choir. You can download an app for your smartphone and sing in the shower – both of which are likely helpful.”

The Brain-Music Connection

Johns Hopkins researchers have had dozens of jazz performers and rappers improvise music while lying down inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine to watch and see which areas of their brains light up. “Music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be awareof it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it,” notes one otolaryngologist.

What Kind of Music is Best?

Renown auditory trainer Geoff Plant at the Hearing Rehabilitation Foundation in Woburn, MA suggests that for those with hearing loss who wear a CI or HA they follow a “FAVORS” protocol. Listen to music that is “familiar,” provides an “audio and visual” experience, “opens” you to new and unfamiliar music and challenges the brain in a way that old music doesn’t and forces the brain to struggle to understand the new sound. Listen to “rhythmic” music and move along with it. And finally, listen to “simple” music of various kinds.

Listen to Your Body

Other experts suggest that you pay attention to how you react physically and emotionally to different forms of music, and to select the kinds that work for you at different times of the day, and in different circumstances. What helps one person might not help another.

They recommend that you have your hearing tested by a qualified hearing care professional. New hearing aid technology can help you hear a much broader spectrum of the sounds of life, including your favorite music.

Stu Nunnery

Stu Nunnery

Stu Nunnery is a writer, speaker, recording artist and hearing activist. He has recently returned to making music after a 35-year hiatus and presents workshops and performances about his journey with bilateral hearing loss.

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