Under the Hood

The Sound Of Music: Intensive Musical Training May Make You Better At Following A Conversation In A Noisy Enviroment

bar talk
Some people are just better at bar talk. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Anyone who’s tried to hold a conversation at a bar knows that background noise can make it nearly impossible to hear what the other person is trying to say. This dilemma is officially known as the "cocktail party problem," but scientists theorize that it doesn’t affect musicians quite as badly as it does the rest of us. 

The human ear is limited in its ability to discern speech patterns, and more often than not, a combination of different conversations just sound like indistinguishable “noise.” This is why, for most of us, bars and parties don’t make for the most ideal first date locations. Previous studies have shown that trained musicians process auditory information differently than the rest of us. For example, the musical training, like physical exercise, “tones” the brain for auditory fitness. A recent study explored how far this difference in auditory perception went by testing musicians' and non-musicians' ability to decipher conversations with background noise.

For the study, the team asked musicians and non-musicals to pick out target sentences masked by other sentences presented from different locations. As expected, the musicians performed “significantly better” than the non-musicians at this task. This is not the first study to explore this interesting concept. A 2013 study took the idea even further by comparing the hearing skills of musicians and non-musicians between the ages of 18 and 91. The results from this study revealed that, although we all begin to lose the ability to hear softer sounds with age, musicians still continued to demonstrate better speech detection than their non-musical counterparts.

Intensive musical training helps to both fine-tune the ear to pick up subtle differences in pitch, timing, and timber, and strengthen cognitive abilities such as auditory attention and working memory. The research suggests that the strengthening of these core skills helps individuals' speech perception. However, the interesting side effect of musical training may have another more complex explanation.

“The shared demands of musical training and speech perception may rely on partly overlapping brain mechanisms: Growing evidence suggests that the brain networks involved in music and speech processing are not entirely segregated within the cerebral cortex, and may in fact have a significant degree of overlap,” the study reads.

While the researchers of both studies admit that more work is necessary before any clear conclusions are drawn, all results suggest that, overall, musicians are better at spatial hearing — hearing something from a different location — than non-musicians.

Source: Swaminathan J, Mason CR, Streeter TM, et al. Musical training, individual differences and the cocktail party problem. Nature. 2015.

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