Musical Training Gives you ‘Super Ears’

musician filter results

A new study has concluded that musical training gives listeners better frequency selection abilities, particularly at higher frequencies. The study titled ‘Psychophysical auditory filter estimates reveal sharper cochlear tuning in musicians’ (J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 136, EL33 (2014);) suggested that “Increased cochlear tuning (i.e., auditory filter resolution) in musicians would help explain their enhanced pitch and timbre discrimination abilities and spectral acuity observed in countless behavioral studies.”

Musicians tend to be better at picking out sounds such as speech in noisy and/or reverberant environments and perform better at pitch discrimination. This study suggests that the superior listening abilities of musicians, is a result of better tuned filtering at the cochlear level within the inner-ear.

The current model of human hearing is that of a series of overlapping bandpass filters, representing different points along the basilar membrane – a long resonant structure inside the ear. What this study found is that musicians have sharper filters than non-musicians (at least at higher frequencies) which results in the better performance found in previous studies. The study also found a correlation between the number of years of musical training, suggesting that filter sensitivity is increased with more training.

The researchers (Gavin M. Bidelman, Jonathan M. Schug, Skyler G. Jennings and Shaum P. Bhagat) conducted a series of experiments to determine psychophysical tuning curves of musicians and non-musicians for base tones of 1kHz and 4kHz. This is done by playing the base tone and then playing a masking tone at varying level and frequency to map out a curve showing the threshold levels required to mask the base tone at each frequency.

Graphs showing the results of the study of psychophysical tuning curves comparing musicians vs non-musicians

The curves follow the typical V-shape, with tones close to the base frequency having a greater masking effect than frequencies further from the base tone (the tip of the V should represent the same frequency as the base tone). The results show a clear difference between the musicians and non-musicians with the slope of the curve being sharper for musicians. For frequencies further from the base tone a higher level is needed for the masking effect to take place for musicians.

From the paper itself:

Previous studies have demonstrated superior spectral acuity in musicians relative to nonmusician listeners implying that musical training shapes cochlear processing and increases the resolution of peripheral auditory filters. By measuring PTCs in musicians and nonmusicians—a measure widely believed to reflect peripheral cochlear filtering—our results provide strong evidence for sharper auditory filtering in musically trained listeners. Importantly, this effect was predicted by an individual’s years of musical training. These findings are consistent with the notion that musicianship improves peripheral cochlear filtering, increasing peripheral spectral resolution in an experience-dependent manner. Superior cochlear tuning in musicians may account for their enhanced auditory performance in a wide variety of auditory behavioral studies, including speech/language and musical tasks.

The full paper is available here (PDF).

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