Nfld. & Labrador

Music to my ears: MUN researcher explores link between music and hearing

Can you hear me? Musicians may have the edge when it comes to getting older but maintaining your hearing, according to one researcher.

Musicians appear better at understanding speech in noisy settings — even as they age, says Ben Zendel

Ben Zendel, along with students and other researchers, is examining the link between knowing how to play a musical instrument, aging and keeping your hearing abilities. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

As most of us get older, we lose our hearing. A side effect, if you will, of aging. 

But what if you could do something to keep your auditory abilities sharp, well into your senior years? 

Researchers with a new program at Memorial University's Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook are working on an approach that may literally be music to your ears — they'll soon be testing seniors to examine whether music training may be the key to better hearing.

A voice in the crowd

Ben Zendel has spent the last two years getting the project going. He serves as the Canada Research Chair in Aging and Auditory Neuroscience at Memorial University. 

His previous studies took him to Toronto and Montreal and his focus has remained consistent when it comes to the issue of hearing and seniors — being able to pick out what someone close by is saying amid a lot of distracting noise.

Zendel said musicians seem to have an edge, according to patterns that emerged in his research.

"Older adults [who have had music training] are better able to guide their attention in an automatic way to what's important in the auditory 'scene' — what they want to listen to," he explained. 

People who have been trained to make music are always trying to process sound and to pay very close attention to the details and "this seems to translate to other auditory tasks, the big one being understanding speech in noise," Zendel said.

So, being in a noisy restaurant and understanding what someone across the table is saying "is where musicians do better as they get older," he said.

It's a brain thing 

But how could some musicians preserve their hearing into their senior years, if they're exposed to loud amps or clanging cymbals over the years? 

Ben Zendel wearing electrodes attached to the electroencephalography (EEG) cap. The cap helps measure brain responses to musical sounds. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

​Zendel said it has to do with distinguishing between the role of the ears and the brain.

The tiny hairs that line the ear and vibrate in response to sounds die off naturally as people, including musicians playing loud instruments, get older, he said. But musicians appear to be better when it comes to how the brain processes sound that the ear picks up — even in a crowded, noisy room, Zendel said.

"Everybody gets worse, but we found that the average 70-year-old musician was understanding speech and noise as well as the average 50-year-old non-musician," he said.

"So we get 20 years of benefit by the time you get to 70 for understanding speech and noise."

Old dog, new tunes?   

So if you haven't played music as a younger person, are you out of luck when it comes to keeping your hearing sharp in your senior years?

Equipment at the Grenfell Campus lab generates sounds for the hearing tests. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

Not necessarily, Zendel said.

In some of his previous studies, older people with little exposure to music were given just six months of music lessons and they showed a slight improvement in their ability to discern speech, according to Zendel. 

Now, while at MUN's Grenfell Campus, he wants to find out which people could best benefit from musical instruction, and at what intensity. The goal is to develop rehabilitation programs to help people preserve or improve their hearing as they get older.

Post-doctoral researcher David Fleming came to Corner Brook from Glasgow, Scotland to help in the CAANLab at Grenfell. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

Zendel and others, including post-doctoral researcher David Fleming from Scotland, will conduct that research via the CAANLab (Cognitive Aging and Auditory Neuroscience Labratory), which is a project of Memorial University's Faculty of Medicine.

It features a sound-proof audio booth, computers for hearing tests and electroencephalogram (EEG) tests, which monitor the brain's response to sound.

Volunteers who want to get their hearing tested as part of the research project can contact or call (709) 639-4765.