Friday, September 11, 2009

Musical Training Helps The Cocktail Party Problem?

There has be a lot of press about a recent article in Ear & Hearing, but I found a good bit of it misinformed, sometimes grossly. For example, here are some disturbing misinterpretations:

1) "After years of Mom telling you to turn off the music to protect your ears, there’s finally scientific evidence that music can be good for your hearing."

2) "Music training can help reorder nervous system"

3) "The findings strongly support the potential therapeutic and rehabilitation use of music training to address auditory processing and communication disorders throughout the life span."

In actuality, the paper discusses none of these. I'll take these in turn:

1) This is actually two different statements: that there is benefit to listening to music loudly and that just passively listening to music can help. The most irresponsible is the former. While I'll admit that the statement does not directly say that increasing volume is beneficial, their slight attempt at humor implies it. The study did not discuss any possible benefit about listening to music loudly. As for the later ("passive listening to music can help") is definitely not within the paper. In fact, the study compared people with extensive musical training versus those with no musical training. The amount of time listening to music passively was not a variable within the study. Further, the so called "Mozart effect" has repeatedly been shown to be false (for a some references click here; for a funny discussion, one can check Penn & Teller's Bullshit!), despite the rather silly product market. The distinction between passively learning and actively learning is significant because it is true that research indicates the musical training may increase cognitive abilities in non-musical areas (see the "article" link above), but this cannot be said for passive listening.

2) The paper does not specifically address anything about the brain being rewired. In fact, since all musicians started practicing an instrument before the age of seven, it is likely that the brain wasn't being "rewired," but rather being "developed" in a different environment. This gets into (3) because...

3) The authors do not say anything about the potential for therapeutic products. Again, since the musicians had extensive training and started before the age of seven this study cannot answer the question about whether the effect can occur if someone begins training at a later age.

So just what did the study say?

I encourage you to read it first hand, but this is effectively what it says:

1) When presented with noise from the same source, people who have received life-long musical training performed better in remembering and processing oral sentences in four-talker babble.

2) When the noise is presented from coming from the same source (i.e., loud speaker), there was no difference.

3) The processing part is important because it signifies that working memory is the determining factor.

The authors then hypothesize that because musicians are better able to pick up on low-level auditory cues, they have more resources for working memory, and, therefore, able to process oral information more efficiently.

This is yet another call to caution whenever research is being presented by the media. It's important to ask to read the final article, including the headline, before you agree to give your consent.

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