Banging on a drum, or strumming a guitar may not seem like an ideal activity if you’re struggling with hearing. But new research has revealed learning to play a musical instrument might help in the battle against hearing loss.
Playing the piano, violin or even drums can improve our hearing in noisy environments such as at parties, restaurants and concerts.
Most people with hearing problems end up avoiding such social spaces out of frustration and this can lead to isolation and depression in many sufferers, says Nina Kraus, Professor of neurobiology, Physicology and Otolaryngology at Northwestern University.
An expert in the field, Kraus recently conducted a study with 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians aged from 45 to 65 all of which have hearing loss.
She placed the participants in noisy environments and tested their hearing by monitoring electrical activity from nerves in the brain in response to sound, using electrodes on the scalp.
Published in the journal Hearing Research, the study found those who played an instrument were better at detecting sounds in such environments as well as processing the sound and remembering what they had heard than their non-musician counterparts.
‘The nerves in the brains of musicians responded more clearly and precisely than non-musicians’,’ says Professor Kraus. By learning an instrument, she says, a person can develop auditory skills that improve ability to hear sound and speech.
The enhancements we see in musically-trained individuals are not just a “volume knob” effect,’ she adds.
‘Part of what you’re doing as a musician is listening for meaning, harmonies and the sound of your instrument. Musicians outperform non-musicians in remembering what they’ve heard, and this skill is needed to hear in noisy environments.’
Whiel the research focused on those who had played musical instruments since their childhood, Professor Kraus believes adults who learn to play musical instruments later in life could also improve their hearing.
Children who are deaf or have hearing problems may also benefit from learning instruments.
Vicki Kirwin, an audiology specialist at the UK’s National Deaf Children’s Society, says:
‘There’s a myth that deaf people can’t hear music, therefore no one tries to get them involved.’
According to her, children with hearing difficulties often want to play instruments, but teachers presume they won’t be able to do it.
‘Learning music is good for communication, language from learning lyrics, emotional development and interaction.’ What’s important is that an instrument is chosen with a pitch the child can hear.