In collaboration with Dr. Claude Alain at the Rotman Research Institute, Zendel investigated the age-related changes in central auditory processing in both musicians and non-musicians from age 18 to 91. His study relied on two basic ideas: first, that musicians have advanced auditory capabilities, and second, that people lose hearing as they get older. Certainly, it should come as no surprise that trained musicians have highly developed auditory abilities when compared to non-musicians. However, Zendel found that this advantage widened significantly in the older (musician and non-musician) participants. But why is this important?
One of the most common complaints related to aging is hearing deterioration, and in particular, an auditory difficulty that is often termed the “cocktail party problem.” Zendel explains that there are two components to hearing and hearing loss. First, there is peripheral hearing loss, which has to do more with how loudly your listen to your iPod, and is the result of exposure to loud pulses of sounds over time. The second is “the cocktail party problem” which is the inability to detect and differentiate between sounds in the presence of other sounds. “Sound reaches your brain all at once, “ Zendel explains, “and then your brain must focus on which sounds it wants to decipher and shift attention between sounds selectively. That ability relies on being able to detect the acute features of the auditory world.” It is this ability that deteriorates over time, thus producing the “cocktail party problem” in older people. Unless, that is, you’re a musician.
Zendel explains that musicians are trained to detect fine nuances of sound and must be attuned to different tones and frequencies. Guitarists, for example, must learn to turn their instruments, and violinists must listen carefully in order to place their fingers on the fingerboard to produce the right notes. Also, Zendel points out, musicians must be able to play with others; a skill that relies on highly developed sound differentiation. Further, using these auditory abilities regularly strengthens them over time, which is a fundamental concept of neuroplasticity in the brain. This process allows the brain to function at a higher level with increased capacity, and according to Zendel’s study, in the case of musicians, may likely have protective effects over age-related hearing deterioration.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of research exploring the effects of musical training on the brain and nervous system. While many studies have shown a strong link between musicianship and other skills, Zendel’s study is the first to examine the relationship between musicianship and auditory ability in the context of aging. As improvements in medical technology allow us to live longer lives, research into the dimensions of aging has become increasingly important. While we may be able to stay alive longer, our sensory faculties must struggle to keep up. Zendel’s foundational research opens up the door to further exploration into how to slow or prevent cognitive aging. What does this mean for non-musicians? Is it too late? The musicians in Zendel’s study ranged from professionals who play in symphony orchestras to amateur rock band members, however they had all started musical training by the age of 16 and had at least six years of formal musical training. Perhaps most importantly, they all played their instruments at least 10 hours a week. While Zendel did point out that training and changing the brain is easier in young adults and children, his research does not close the door for non-musicians. Musical training will have important benefits no matter when you begin.
Zendel, an amateur musician himself, (part of the reason he was drawn to auditory research as an undergraduate student) has just started his post-doctoral work at BRAMS, the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research in Montreal. He expects to continue his research into musicianship, brain function and aging, and hopes to continue playing the guitar on the side.