Super-Hearing: The Secret Power of Learning an Instrument

Cort Christopher, 20, stands in his college dorm room, electric violin plugged into his amp. His door is open and from his room the strains of DragonForce, a British metal band, pour out into the hallway. He is a good-looking college kid, with ruddy cheeks and a mop of curls.

“I play this as sort of a pop-culture reference,” he says, using his bow to point to the sheets of music taped across his wall. “ ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ is the hardest song on “Rock Band,” and I want to master it.”

Christopher has been playing the violin since he was 9 years old and studied under Marjorie Talvi, who was the first chair of the Seattle Symphony. Little does he know that his 10 years of classical training has given him a hidden superpower: His brain is really, really good at reading emotional sounds in speech.

According to a study published by Northwestern University, musicians trained in an instrument for at least 10 years “have more efficient brain processing of emotional vocal sounds than nonmusicians.”

So what does this mean for day-to-day interactions? Dana Strait, the author of the study, is the first to say that her work doesn’t deal with the behavioral/perceptual component. “My study was only neural,” says Strait. “But I might argue that musicians are better at picking up subtle emotional cues.”

Though it’s important to resist the urge to overinterpret Strait’s work, her study opens the doors for some interesting discussions.

Music and Empathy

In his book, “Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five,” Dr. John Medina, a molecular biologist, references Strait’s work as evidence that it is possible to help our children learn to be more empathetic.

The definition of empathy is the ability to recognize and to some extent share in the emotions of others. If we can teach children to “fine-tune [their] hearing for the emotional aspects of speech,” Medina wonders, would they be better able to pick up on nonverbal communication?

He writes that individuals who had studied an instrument for at least 10 years responded with “greased-lightning speed” to changes in emotion-laden cues, such as a baby’s cry. On the other hand, individuals “without rigorous musical training didn’t show much discrimination at all. They didn’t pick up on the fine-grained information embedded in the signal and were, so to speak, more emotionally tone-deaf.”

For Christopher’s part, this ability to perceive the emotions buried in people’s speech might be very useful for his work as his dorm floor’s resident advisor. As an RA, Christopher is in charge of the floor of students he floods with music. His job is to keep a pulse on the emotional, mental, and physical well-being of his residents.

“It’s my responsibility to make sure everyone is in a position to have a good time,” Christopher says. “Because if they’re not doing well, that goes hand in hand with not doing well in classes, and it’s my responsibility to help people develop progressively in a healthy way. Make sure people aren’t spiraling out of some emotional thing.”

As a part of his job, he must meet with each of his residents four times a year and get down to the nitty-gritty. He has to ask them questions like, “How have you changed since high school?” and “Do you think your social identity is the same or different?”

“One-on-ones are basically a chance to get inside the student and talk to the person, get to the heart of things,” says Christopher. It stands to reason that being able to read his residents’ emotional cues would come in handy for work such as this.

Music and Restructuring the Brain

So why is it that learning a musical instrument helps the brain read emotional cues? Medina writes that the musician’s brainstem is the most ancient part of the brain.

What does this mean, exactly? Medina explains: “The brainstem is part of something we often call the reptilian brain. It is given this name because it looks a lot like — and functions a lot like — the ones seen in lizards. We process many of our emotional responses in this reptilian brain. Interestingly, music can stimulate this emotional neurological real estate.”

And Strait takes the explanation even deeper. She writes that because musicians are trained to listen carefully to the “acoustic properties of sound on a daily basis,” their brains are trained to pick up on the pitch and timbre of emotion in speech.

In fact, musicians’ brains are actually shaped by their training in music. “What the musicians have is a wealth of auditory experience that, by means of plasticity, shapes how their brain works,” says Strait.

And when she uses the word plasticity, what she means is the ability of the nervous system “to change — structurally and/or functionally — with training and/or experience.” So, in essence, musical training has the ability to help reshape how the brain interacts with the sound world around us.

For this reason, through the training that comes with practicing an instrument, the musician’s brain is changing, growing, reorganizing so that it is better able to perceive emotional cues in speech; and not just that, but to pick up on the cues faster than the nonmusician’s brain.

Again, Christopher can speak to this. “I have been trained, whether I like it or not, to listen extremely well to very intimate things, like you roll your finger a bit [while you’re playing the violin] and now you’re playing a different note.” He holds an imaginary violin over his shoulder and, with a nearly imperceptible twitch of his wrist, demonstrates what he’s talking about — a new note is born.

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