The study showed that musicians, who are trained to hear sounds embedded in a rich network of melodies and harmonies, are primed to understand speech in a noisy background, say in a restaurant, classroom or plane.
"The study points to a highly pragmatic side of music's magic," said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, where the research was done.
The findings strongly support the potential therapeutic and rehabilitation use of musical training to address auditory processing and communication disorders throughout the life span.
While hearing speech in noise is difficult for everyone, the problem is particularly acute for older adults, who are likely to have hearing and memory loss, and for poor readers who have normal hearing but whose nervous systems poorly transcribe sounds that ultimately are critical to good reading skills.
The study suggested that such populations could benefit from the reordering of the nervous system that occurs with musical training.
As the brain changes with experience, musicians have better-tuned circuitry-the pitch, timing and spectral elements of sound are represented more strongly and with greater precision in their nervous systems.
"Musical training makes musicians really good at picking out melodies, the bass line, the sound of their own instruments from complex sounds," said Kraus.
And the study has for the first time confirmed that such fine-tuning of the nervous system also makes musicians highly adept at translating speech in noise.
The finding has particular implications for hearing certain consonants, which are vulnerable to misinterpretation by the brain, and are a big problem for some poor readers in a noisy environment.
The brain's unconscious faulty interpretation of sounds makes a big difference in how words ultimately will be read.
The study had 31 participants with normal hearing and a mean age of 23 divided into a group with music experience, and another without it.
They had to listen to sentences presented in increasingly noisy conditions, and repeat back what they heard.
Better perception in noise was linked with better working memory and tone discrimination ability.
The results indicated that musical training enhances the ability to hear speech in challenging listening environments by strengthening auditory memory and the representation of important acoustic features.