Super-Hearing: The Secret Power of Learning an Instrument

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Music and Foreign Languages

Over and over again, Christopher compares learning to play the violin to learning to speak French, which he has studied for nearly as long as the violin. At one point in the interview, he says that learning to play under Marjorie Talvi went a long way to help him learn to “speak the instrument.”

“Learning to play an instrument is like learning a foreign language in that it’s incredibly hard and takes a lot of practice, but after you’ve spent hundreds of hours learning scales, memorizing words and phrases, then there’s a curious point in time where you can start to play a song and you sound good to yourself.”

Medina says that Christopher might be on to something with this comparison. “There is evidence that long-term musical training — especially if it involves continuous exposure to musical pitch patterns — provides a great deal of benefit for the processing of pitch patterns in foreign languages.”

Strait agrees, going so far as to call musicians bilingual. “Music and language learning both require the forging of new sound-to-meaning mappings,” she says, “in which particular sounds — or ways of pronouncing sounds — can take on actual meaning.” This ability, Strait says, is very likely to give rise to plasticity in the human auditory system. In other words, learning foreign languages as well as music can shape our sense of hearing. That’s why musicians and those fluent in a foreign language share what Strait calls “many auditory processing enhancements.” They have an upper hand when it comes to distinguishing between similar sounds or words, separating relevant speech from background noise and recalling and comprehending what they hear.

Music and Autism

A final and exciting possibility that Strait’s work points to is the therapeutic use of music for those diagnosed with autism and reading disorders. Because music uses the same mechanisms in the brain as language and improves the ability to perceive emotion, it would seem to suggest that children and adults struggling with speech and reading could benefit from the powerful effects of learning an instrument.

“It could be that music training, although not able to make an autistic child ‘not autistic’ or a dyslexic child ‘not dyslexic,’ could strengthen aspects of neural processing that are deficient in these populations,” says Strait. “This strengthening could be accompanied by improved interactions with speech — for example, improved emotion-perception in autistics, improved language-processing in dyslexics.”

The Point of Interest

So what do you do with kids who may not be musically inclined? Are they lost to the benefits of Christopher’s hidden superpower, learning to hear the emotional sounds in people’s speech? Strait’s research points to the fact that while genetics may play a role in our ability to hear emotion in speech, it isn’t enough to account for the difference between musicians and nonmusicians.

“Practice and experience relate to the extent of enhancement in musicians,” says Strait. “Musicians who had practiced for more years had more enhanced brain responses to emotionally laden speech cues.” It all comes down to practice and experience. These are the things that shape and train the brain and our sense of hearing over and above talent. Whether children are musically gifted or not, they can still enjoy the neural perks of learning an instrument and sticking with it for at least 10 years. While Christopher may well be naturally talented at playing the violin, he definitely recalls a time when he didn’t enjoy learning. “When I was going through classical lessons, I really did not like it,” he says, “because even when I could play a song, I wasn’t satisfied with the results, because I didn’t appreciate the music.”

That was until the day he opened a book of fiddle music and all of the practice paid off. “I remember one day practicing scales and getting so frustrated. Then I opened up the fiddle book, and I could play it.” The fiddle and violin are the same instrument; the different terms refer to different genres of music. For Christopher, fiddle music led to Irish Folk, which led to Irish Punk, which lead to Classic Rock.

Christopher calls this his “moment of interest” — the moment when the violin became relevant to him and he finally enjoyed playing it. Now Christopher’s favorite thing to do? Open the door to his dorm room, plug in his amp and electric violin, pick up Jimi Hendrix and “go crazy.”

Rock on, Cort, and let all those auditory senses and neural pathways light up.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2012 issue.

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