Wired (by way of Metal Injection) reports on a study by neuroscientist Nina Kraus of Northwestern University that tested both musicians and non-musicians for the ability to understand speech in a noisy environment like a restaurant or crowded party (or metal show). Surprise! Those with musical training are better at focusing on specific sounds.
On both speech tests, musicians dramatically outperformed their non-musician counterparts and also demonstrated better working memory. “The extent of musical experience also mattered,” Kraus said. “The earlier you began and the more years you had been practicing, the better your speech-in-noise perception.”
Previous research on the effects of musical training on the brain suggest that studying music enhances regions of the brain responsible for encoding and processing sound, including areas of the cerebral cortex and the auditory brainstem. Training the brain to hear and understand music also improves the ability to hear and understand speech, Kraus said, and it makes sense that the effects are particularly pronounced under conditions of high background noise.
“You’ve got an orchestra or a band, and you’re trying to hear the sound of your own instrument or trying to pull out a melody or bass line,” Kraus said. “There’s an analogy to that in listening to speech-in-noise, where what you’re trying to do is pull out a signal — the speaker’s voice — out of the many, many sounds that are going on around you.”
I buy this. I’ve had many friends in the production business expound on their new-found skills of selective hearing after training in mixing. I know I’ve impressed people with my ability to notice a ringing cellphone in the middle of a car blasting Meshuggah.