Boy at PianoThe benefits of music training in childhood are long-lasting, according to new research from Canada’s Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences. The study finds that older adults who had music training in their youth are better able to comprehend speech sounds. The ability to comprehend speech can decay with age. This decay is linked to the brain’s central auditory system, which processes speech sounds, not to hearing ability. The findings indicate that music training can help maintain the brain’s speech processing abilities as people age.

The researchers evaluated 20 adults aged 55 to 75. Ten of the adults had music training before age 14 and 10 did not have music training. The participants wore headphones to listen to random speech sounds. The sounds ranged from vowel noises like “ooo” and “aah” to ambiguous-sounding combinations that challenged the participants’ auditory processing skills. While the participants listened to and identified the sounds, the researchers observed their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), which allowed them to pinpoint the timing of the brain’s electrical activity.

The participants with music training were 20 percent faster at identifying speech sounds compared to their untrained peers. The EEG results showed that the participants with music training had enhanced brain functions in the areas related to speech recognition.

Gavin Bidelman, study leader and post-doctoral fellow at RRI, explains that the response to the speech sounds “was two to three times better in the older musicians’ brains compared to their non-musician peers. In other words, old musicians’ brains provide a much more detailed, clean and accurate depiction of the speech signal, which is likely why they are much more sensitive and better at understanding speech.”

The study contributes to growing evidence suggesting that musical training has many benefits for cognition—in youth and in old age. The findings underscore the importance of music programs for young people.

This research is published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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