Does music hold important tools for managing hearing loss? Researchers in Toronto are beginning to investigate potential connections between musical understanding and the ways in which our brain distinguishes sound. A study currently being conducted at Ryerson University, by professor Frank Russo, is focused on looking for tools and techniques that use music education to help people with hearing loss make distinctions between sounds in noisy environments.
The Challenge of Noisy Places
Loud, noisy environments have always posed one of the biggest difficulties for people with hearing loss. A tough listening challenge, even for people without hearing impairments is distinguishing voices and following conversations amidst a background din. Loud social settings pose a particular challenge for hearing aid technology as well.
The specifics of hearing impairment emphasize why these locations can be so challenging. As our hearing ability declines, our facility for distinguishing the sources of sound also diminishes. The brain uses information from both our ears to triangulate where sound is originating from, and the less sound information it gathers, the harder it is to connect a sound to its source. Additionally, as we age, the connection between our inner ear and the brain’s auditory cortex gradually weakens. This makes the very sorting of relevant from irrelevant sound a strenuous task for our mind to interpret, one that becomes more difficult with time.
How To Recognize Speech
Hearing aid technology has made huge strides in helping people with hearing loss navigate noisy environments, but hearing better also involves tinkering with how our brain is wired to analyze sounds. Based on prior research that determined that as musicians age have an easier time separating speech from noise than their non-musician peers, Russo has set up a study to see if musical training can impact the function of the auditory cortex.
The Toronto study is being done in partnership with the Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology (SMART) Lab at Ryerson. Participants are seniors, in three groupings, who are followed as they participate in a choir or take a music appreciation class or refrain from any musical training. Study participants are periodically tested on their ability to distinguish speech in noisy recordings.
The hope is that musical training teaches the brain how to distinguish subtle yet distinct variations in sound. Russo’s team asks its choir participants to work with Theta Music Trainer, a software application that tests a user’s ability to evaluate musical information. Theta Music Trainer runs exercises like playing two different notes from two different instruments and asking the listener to distinguish the higher pitch. Theta can also play note sequences and then evaluate how accurately singers can match them. Progressively, through exposure, Theta Music Trainer makes quantifiable distinctions accessible to its users.
Russo’s theory is that by being more adept at making distinctions with the subtleties of sound, listeners will be better able to follow the specific “frequency trails” that voices have as they interact in conversation, similar to following the path of a specific instrument throughout a piece of music.
One of the most distinct aspects of the study is that some participants are guided in musical training through their participation in a no-experience-needed choir. Led through Ryerson’s Continuing Education program, choir members go through vocal lessons and exercises and work on performing a short program of songs. The choir meets for two hours a week for ten consecutive weeks.
One initiative of Russo’s team at the SMART Lab is to determine how little musical training is needed to register a measurable change in how participants are hearing. To this end, they are looking at the impact of the choir sessions as compared to a control group that simply listens to music as part of an appreciation course.
Russo’s study is a somewhat loose investigation. Participant groups are fairly small and not evaluated or randomized for social factors that may make them more inclined to be engaged with their hearing. However, the SMART Lab studies could easily pave the way for deeper research, and in time, perhaps some effective strategies for auditory fitness.
If you’ve noticed issues with your hearing or have questions about your auditory wellness, reach out and contact us at Hearing Health today. Our hearing specialists can help you find a personalized solution for any hearing issues you may encounter and we are always happy to help you hear your best.