Brain recordings of professional musicians have revealed that they have sharper auditory responses than non-musicians, even in late life when neural responses are declining. But what about people who played an instrument early in life and then stopped after reaching adulthood?
Travis White-Schwoch and his colleagues addressed this question by recording from the auditory brainstem of adults between the ages of 55 and 76. The older adults fell into one of three groups: some had no musical training, others had three years or less, and some had between four and fourteen years.
As we age, one of the elements of speech that is the most difficult to encode and hear properly is a consonant-vowel transition. This is because of how quickly the transition occurs relative to the sustained vowel sound. (Think of how easy it is to mistake the word “vowels” for the word “bowels”.) For this reason, the group hypothesized that those with more musical training would have faster neural responses to the consonant-vowel transition syllable “da” than their non-trained counterparts. This was true, especially when the syllable was presented in a noisy environment, which tends to slow neural responses in the auditory brainstem.
So why does it make a difference if those with musical training react a few milliseconds faster than their non-trained peers? In short, timing is everything. A faster reaction means a more efficient auditory system. This study does not explore whether the musically-trained groups have comparatively fewer events of mishearing speech, but that can be a hard variable to quantify. Having a faster reaction in the brainstem at least makes it more likely that the cortex can parse speech correctly.
It is remarkable that early musical training left a detectable trace in the brain, despite the fact that 40 or more years had passed since the musical training ceased. Although this study does not address the mechanisms of the change, the authors propose at least two alternatives. It could be that early training causes a enhancement that is crystallized as the adult ages, resulting in a permanent structural change. The authors see this as unlikely, however, given that auditory responses are known to be responsive to interventions even late in adulthood. Another possibility is that early musical training changes the individual’s lifetime relationship with sounds, and so the tight neural timing typical of a musician is reinforced. To state it differently, people with early musical training may be better listeners throughout their lives, more appreciative of the rhythms and tones that make up our auditory landscape.
One thing is for sure: I’m glad my mom made me practice violin everyday as a kid. She was right when she said I’d thank her later.