Kids often drag their heels when it’s time to head for piano or violin class – but it turns out that those lessons aren’t just giving children an appreciation of music; they may help them to hear later in life.
In a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers looked at how the brain makes sense of fast-changing sounds, which are important for interpreting speech.
Later in life, we tend to lose our ability to quickly and accurately process certain sounds. But what the researchers found was that adults who had music education as kids had much better sound processing skills than those who did not — even if their musical training stopped when they were kids — and that the more training they had, the faster their brains responded.
“We compared neural responses to speech in three groups of older adults who reported varying degrees of music training early in their lives. The group with the most music training displayed the fastest neural timing,” reads the study, titled Older Adults Benefit from Music Training Early in Life: Biological Evidence for Long-Term Training-Driven Plasticity.
Previous studies have found that lifelong music training may offset age-related declines in cognitive and neural function, but they focused on musicians who had played throughout their lives.
“Here we observe this benefit in adults with past music experience 40 years after training stopped.”
The researchers say that, in addition to creating fixed changes in the brain during childhood, the music lessons may also “set the stage” for future interactions with sound by priming the hearing system to operate more dynamically. In other words, early musical training has a lasting positive effect on how the brain processes sound.
"This study suggests the importance of music education for children today and for healthy aging decades from now," said study co-author Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in a release.
"The fact that musical training in childhood affected the timing of the response to speech in older adults in our study is especially telling because neural timing is the first to go in the aging adult."