Musical training can improve your hearing, according to several studies presented in Chicago at Neuroscience 2009, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
The studies found that serious musicians are better than other people at perceiving and remembering sounds. But it's not because they have better ears.
Sounds come in through the ears. But they travel through the nervous system and get interpreted by the brain.
That means your hearing can change even if your ears don't, says Nina Kraus, who directs the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.
"Your hearing system becomes tuned by the experiences that you have had with sound throughout your life," Kraus says.
You can read the entire transcript here or listen to the report here.
I like to think of hearing as a processing issue in many cases. Here's why.
I began noticing some years back, that sometimes I had trouble understanding what someone said. I would ask them to repeat themselve, and while I was asking that, I suddenly understood what they said.
Or I'll hear something and not understand it a first. If I think about the sound for a moment, I'll be able to understand it.
Have you noticed similar experiences?
What that tells me, is that my ears are delivering the appropriate data to my brain, but sometimes my brain simply requires more time to decode those sound waves into something that actually has meaning. It just takes a few more CPU cycles.
To extend the metaphor a little further, it's like those grainy videos they show on CSI. You'll see just pixealated blobs. That's what my ears deliver to my brain. Then they press the "enhance" option on their keyboard, and suddenly the video is perfectly clear.That's what my brain does to the data my ears deliver. Except that with hearing, this actually happens.
Musicians have better trained their brains than I have. Their brains do a more efficient job of processing audio than mine because they live it.
And that's a fascinating process.