How Music Training Can Improve Life with Hearing Loss

By Julia Métraux

Adjusting to life with hearing loss can be difficult, and some people need support beyond wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants to truly thrive. If you find yourself exhausted by concentrating while wearing hearing devices, auditory training could be a good boost. Training that involves music can be a fun and engaging option.

First, let’s take a quick dive into auditory training, sometimes called “aural rehabilitation.” The goal of auditory training is to strengthen the brain’s auditory processing capability. According to Anne D. Olson, Ph.D., it “can be defined as a purposeful and systematic presentation of sounds such that listeners are taught to make perceptual distinctions about those sounds.” This can improve listening accuracy.

When patients with suspected hearing loss enter her clinic, audiologist Jill Davis, AuD performs a cognitive screener as well as one with a background noise. “Seventy percent of patients performed well with just the hearing aids alone. For that thirty percent that need a little extra help, that's when auditory training comes into play,” Davis told Hearing Tracker.

The role of music in auditory training

There are different types of auditory training, but an interesting avenue—and one that Davis implements at her practice—is music training. This involves learning to play an instrument and differs from music therapy, which is using music as a therapeutic tool to treat physical, emotional and/or cognitive symptoms.

When Davis begins working with people who may benefit from auditory training due to concentration issues, she asks if they play an instrument. “Research shows that playing music can help build up their abilities. Surprisingly, many answer that ‘I've always wanted to play an instrument,’ or ‘I have a piano that's collecting dust that I've never played,’” Davis said. Music training may be even more beneficial for people who do not have a background in music.

How music training helps

Why is music such a good practice for those with hearing loss? In both researching the benefits of music training and seeing the results in her patients, Davis found that music training can help people who struggle with background noise. “What I found was that if you play an instrument, your brain ‘works’ faster, you hear better in background noise, and daily life is just easier,” Davis said. “So I wanted to use that to help people with hearing loss train their brains to hear better and [filter out] background noise.”

And this isn’t just Davis’ opinion. A systematic review published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that music training offers an array of benefits to people with hearing loss. These include helping people with hearing loss tell sounds apart based on pitch, duration, and timbre. Music training can also enhance working memory in people with hearing loss, which is the “ability to temporally maintain and manipulate information,” which may ease the experience of listening exhaustion.

Who benefits from music training?

Music training can help those who have congenital or acquired hearing loss, according to Céline Hidalgo, PhD, one of the authors of the review published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine. She told Hearing Tracker, “For congenital deafness, this allows the development of general cognitive functions that will allow harmonious development of language and communication” through cochlear implants.

Music training, according to Davis, can be helpful to people with a range of hearing loss, and it can be useful for people who may have put off auditory training. “As long as they can hear the music that we are playing, no matter what their level of discrimination or the significance of their loss, we see that we can improve at any point in the journey,” Davis said.

How to participate in music training

For people who participate in music training, “most of the time” wearing hearing aids helps “but a part can also be carried out without the aids or the implant during the work of the rhythm, which can essentially be perceived at the tactile level,” Hidalgo said.

People who participate in music training may see changes after only three months, according to Davis, and the sessions don’t need to always be in person. “I was trying to find ways that my patients could play without having to do in-person instructions,” she explained. “I found and partnered with a piano-playing app” to allow for a virtual component to the program.

If you want to participate in music training yourself or encourage a family member to do so, you can find an instructor or a class online. Learn-to-play apps are a good option, too. Whatever route you choose, do speak to a hearing health professional to see if your program would qualify as auditory training. That way, you’ll ensure that the joy of music is also helping to improve your skills.