Lifelong musicians can understand you better at noisy parties

Remember the last time you were at a noisy party — the kind of party where you have trouble understanding what the person next to you is saying? Scientists call this the "cocktail party problem," and use it to describe the difficulty that humans have understanding speech in the presence of background noise.

Previous studies have shown that the cocktail party problem becomes particularly pronounced in the elderly as their hearing declines, but newly published research suggests that for lifelong musicians, the cocktail party problem isn't very problematic at all — at least compared to the the one faced by non-musicians.

Hearing studies have long shown that trained musicians are able to process auditory information more effectively than non-musicians, but what researchers Benjamin Rich-Zendel and Claude Alain wanted to know was if musicians' highly developed auditory abilities could contribute to better hearing in old age.

To accomplish this, Rich-Zendel and Alain examined hearing abilities in 74 musicians and 89 non-musicians between the ages of 18 and 91. The researchers describe their findings in the latest issue of Psychology and Aging:

Musicians demonstrated less age-related decline in some auditory tasks (i.e., gap detection and speech in noise), and had a lifelong advantage in others (i.e., mistuned harmonic detection). Importantly, the rate of age-related decline in hearing sensitivity, as measured by pure-tone thresholds, was similar between both groups, demonstrating that musicians experience less age-related decline in central auditory processing.

As the researchers point out, the most interesting thing about their findings is that whether you're a musician or not, getting old is going to lead to a pretty much universal drop in your ability to assess what are known as "pure tone thresholds," i.e. your ability to detect increasingly quieter sounds.

But when it comes to your ability to make sense of what sounds you can hear, the researchers' findings suggest that it pays to be a musician. In the "speech-in-noise" test, for example (the task most closely related to the cocktail party problem), the average 70-year-old musician was able to understand speech in a noisy environment as well as the average 50-year-old non-musician.

The researchers suspect that this distinction boils down to the fact that the auditory tasks of "gap detection," "speech-in-noise," and "mistuned harmonic detection" — all of which deal with our ability to parse out differences (and, by extension, meaning) in sound — rely on auditory processing in the brain, while pure tone thresholds do not.

The study certainly has its shortcomings. The authors admit, for example, that distinguishing between levels of musical experience — drawing a line between professional musician, amateur musician, and non-musician — is an inexact process (the authors wound up using information like years of education, age of musical training onset, and the average hours per week in practicing their instrument); and their sample sizes could certainly be improved upon to strengthen the validity of their findings.

Nevertheless, the researchers' results raise important questions about the progression of age-related "hearing loss," and the important distinction between our inability to hear sound at all versus our ability to cognitively process the sounds we can hear.

Via Psychology and Aging
(A direct link will be provided to the article when the publication goes live)
Update: The article is now available online

Thanks to Dr. Alain and for the advance copy of the publication
Top image via Yco/Shuttestock