EVANSTON, Ill. --- Anyone with an MP3 device -- just about every man, woman and child on the planet today, it seems -- has a notion of the majesty of music, of the primal place it holds in the human imagination.
But musical training should not be seen simply as stuff of the soul -- a frill that has to go when school budgets dry up, according to a new Northwestern University study.
The study shows that musicians -- trained to hear sounds embedded in a rich network of melodies and harmonies -- are primed to understand speech in a noisy background, say in a restaurant, classroom or plane.
It is the first demonstration of musical training offsetting the deleterious effects of background noise, and the implications are provocative.
"The study points to a highly pragmatic side of music's magic," said Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, where the research was done.
The findings strongly support the potential therapeutic and rehabilitation use of musical training to address auditory processing and communication disorders throughout the life span.
Hearing speech in noise is difficult for everyone. But the difficulty is particularly acute for older adults, who are likely to have hearing and memory loss, and for poor readers who have normal hearing but whose nervous systems poorly transcribe sounds that ultimately are critical to good reading skills.
"Many older adults will say, 'I can hear what you're saying, but I don't understand you,'" Kraus said. "So they might have a little bit of a hearing loss, but often not enough to warrant the difficulty that a lot of older adults report."
Such populations could benefit from the reordering of the nervous system that occurs with musical training, according to the study. Because the brain changes with experience, musicians have better-tuned circ
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