Music and Hearing

By: Dr. Lisa D. Cahill, Ph.D., CCC-A

Exciting recent research has been focused on the positive effect of music listening and specifically musical training on the biological circuitry of the auditory brain. The premise of this concept is based on the overlap in areas of the brain responsible for processing music and speech. Auditory processing of musical input involves more precision than for speech input, and repetition and focused attention is required for learning and progressing in musical performance (Kraus & Anderson, 2014). This activity engages many areas of the brain and honed skill in memory, attention, emotion, language, timing, social skills, and even mathematical ability. 

A number of health benefits are associated with music listening. Not only has it been linked to immunoglobin A for higher immune system function, but it also lowers cortisol, the stress hormone, and anxiety in listeners (Chanda & Levitin, 2013). Several areas of the brain including the superior temporal gyrus and the nucleus accumbens, are specifically responsible for analyzing and storing music experiences. These areas are also input dependent areas that actually change over time in response to listening experiences, and this plays a major role in listening preferences. Of primary relevance, however, is the impact of practiced music technique on the brain’s ability to process fine temporal cues, or the timing of rapid changes in the auditory stream occurring on the order of milliseconds.

Advantages of musical training on auditory system function have been observed in both children and adults (Kraus & Anderson, 2014). From early childhood (ages 0-3) to the young adult stage, exposure to musical training is correlated with improved perceptual and cognitive function, as well as speech recognition in noise, pitch discrimination, and auditory memory.  Even older adults can experience improved speech in noise capabilities following exposure to musical training (Zendel & Alain, 2012).  This could be a very important implication for adults at risk for developing hearing loss.  Learning about music is fun, reduces stress, boosts the immune system, and improves auditory discrimination!       

Hearing aid amplification for older musicians with hearing loss may require a different signal processing and fitting strategy than for non-musicians. Due to the fine-tuned neural encoding of the musician auditory brain, they may be more sensitive to background noise. Furthermore, music listening in general may require an alternate programming approach to accommodate for acoustic and temporal differences between speech and music. Most hearing aid strategies are to optimize speech, but music and speech differ on several characteristics including duration of sounds and slower pitch changes. If you are a musician or if you simply appreciate music, your hearing care provider can easily optimize your hearing aid performance with a specialized “Music” program in your hearing instruments (Chasin, 2014).  

As if you didn’t have enough reason already to enjoy and participate in musical ventures, now there is a clear advantage to the future of your hearing and communication ability! Children and grandchildren in your family can also benefit from exposure to musical learning, regardless of age. Remember, keep the volume at a reasonable level! 


Chanda M.L., Levitin D.J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(4), 179-193.

Chasin, M. (2014).  The “best hearing aid” for listening to music: Clinical tricks, major technologies, and software tips. Hearing Review, 21(8), 26-29.

Kraus N., Anderson, S. (2014). Music benefits across the lifespan: enhanced processing of speech in noise. Hearing Review, 21(8), 18-21.

Zendel B.R., Alain C. (2012).  Musicians experience less age-related decline in central auditory processing. Psychology of Aging, 27: 410-417.