Musical training can offset some of the deleterious effects of aging, finds a study.
To find out why, researchers in Kraus' Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Northwestern's School of Communication tested 18 musicians and 19 non-musicians aged 45 to 65 for speech in noise, auditory working memory, visual working memory and auditory temporal processing.
The musicians - who began playing an instrument at age 9 or earlier and consistently played an instrument throughout their lives - bested the non-musician group in all but visual working memory, where both groups showed nearly identical ability.
The experience of extracting meaningful sounds from a complex soundscape and of remembering sound sequences enhances the development of auditory skills, said Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory and co-author of the study.
"The neural enhancements we see in musically-trained individuals are not just an amplifying or 'volume knob' effect," said Kraus, who also is professor of neurobiology and physiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
"Playing music engages their ability to extract relevant patterns, including the sound of their own instrument, harmonies and rhythms," added Kraus, Hugh Knowles Chair in Communication Sciences.
Music training "fine-tunes" the nervous system, according to Kraus, a longtime advocate of music in the K-12 curriculum.
"Sound is the stock in trade of the musician in much the same way that a painter of portraits is keenly attuned to the visual attributes of the paint that will convey his or her subject," said Kraus.
"If the materials that you work with are sound, then it is reasonable to suppose that all of your faculties involved with taking it in, holding it in memory and relating physically to it should be sharpened," explained Kraus.
"Music experience bolsters the elements that combat age-related communication problems," added Kraus.
The study has been published in the online science journal PLoS One.