Research | August 2015 Hearing Review

A review of more recent music-related findings and their possible implications

Music is one of the most demanding cognitive and neural challenges, requiring very precise and accurate timing of many acoustic-related actions. The literature suggests exact interval control of pitch not involved in language, and the many different ways of producing sound, leads to enhanced reorganization of neural structures and functions—or put more simply, greater neuroplasticity. With the wealth of new and exciting findings in this research area, it increasingly appears likely that concepts related to music training can be applied to aural rehabilitation for numerous clinical populations.

Enhanced auditory perception in musicians is likely to result from auditory perceptual learning during their years of training and practice. Among many attributes, the literature suggests they have superior pre-attentive and attentive auditory discrimination skill as evidenced by event-related potentials.

Research also shows they benefit from enhanced subcortical encoding of auditory stimuli and temporal processing in musicians. Ragert et al1 showed that, regardless of the performance level of pianists, the effect of Hebbian learning (ie, adaptation of neurons in the brain during the learning process) was greater in musicians than non-musicians.

Similarly, Abdul et al2 performed a voxel-based (neuroimaging) morphometric study in 2011 that showed significantly increased grey matter volume in musicians compared to non-musicians. Results were positively correlated with the musicians’ years of playing experience. This study suggested a change due to musical training in middle and superior cerebellar peduncle in musicians. The researchers also found that musicians have significantly larger right superior cerebellar peduncle volume and number of streamlines, right middle cerebellar peduncle volume, and total white matter volume of the right cerebellum.

Hoenig et al,3 using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), found in 2011 that conceptual processing of visually presented musical instruments activated various parts of the brain. In the study, the auditory cortex encompassing adjacent areas in the superior temporal sulcus, as well as right posterior superior temporal gyrus and the upper part of middle temporal gyrus, were activated in musicians, but similar activation was absent in non-musicians. Hence, intensive training and experience of musicians with different musical instruments provide a link between conceptual brain systems and auditory perceptual skills.

Superior Pre-attentive Skills in Musicians

Mismatch negativity (MMN) is a component of event-related potential that has been extensively used to study the pre-attentive auditory discrimination skills and storage of regularities in the features of stimuli.4 Nager et al5 investigated MMN in professional pianists, conductors, and non-musicians and found that MMN was larger in amplitude in musicians compared to non-musicians. Similarly, in 2012, Marie, Kujala, and Besson6 investigated pre-attentive skills in musicians and non-musicians using MMN, and showed that MMN peak amplitude was significantly larger in musicians compared to non-musicians for frequency deviants. Their research also suggested enhancement of pre-attentive auditory discrimination skills in musicians.

From this research, it can be inferred that musicians have higher amplitudes (better) and “greater area under the MMN curve” (better) compared to non-musicians. This indicates that musicians have enhanced pre-attentive auditory processing skills compared to non-musicians.

Superior Attentive Auditory Discrimination Skill

Crummer et al7 investigated the P300 component of the event-related potential between adult musicians and non-musicians. The mean P3 amplitude was enhanced for musicians compared to non-musicians. They also observed that the mean P3 latencies for musicians were shorter in all series than mean P3 latencies for non-musicians.

In 2012, Okhrei, Kutsenko, and Makarchouk8 investigated P300 in musicians and non-musicians using tonal stimuli, and showed that the peak latencies of P3 component in the left hemisphere were significantly shorter in musicians compared to non-musicians. This indicates that musicians have better attentive auditory processing skills compared to non-musicians.

Enhanced Brainstem Encoding of Auditory Stimuli in Musicians

Lee et al9 in 2009 assessed auditory brainstem responses in musicians and non-musicians using music stimuli. Results showed there was significant difference found in the spectral analysis of the frequency following response. Musicians had significantly greater amplitude for the harmonics compared to non-musicians.

Similarly, Bidelman, Gandour and Krishnan10 in 2011 compared auditory evoked responses from the brainstem among 11 English speaking musicians, 11 non-musicians, and 11 native speakers of Mandarin Chinese ages 21 to 25 years. The stimuli used were tuned and detuned musical cords. The results showed that musicians and native speakers of Mandarin had enhanced representation of defining pitches of musical sequences at brainstem level in comparison to non-musicians.

Enhanced Temporal Processing in Musicians

Several studies have been carried out to discover if music training improves temporal processing abilities. Zendel and Alain11 in 2012 compared gap detection threshold (GDT) in musicians and non-musicians in the age range of 18 to 91 years. The results showed that musicians demonstrated less age-related decline in GDT compared to non-musicians.

Similarly, Sangamanatha et al12 in 2012 obtained modulation detection thresholds at 8, 20, 60, and 200 Hz modulation frequency in 15 participants in three distinct groups: 1) children with musical training (mean age 12.66 years); 2) children without any musical training (mean age 12.89 years), and 3) adults (mean age 24.30 years) without any musical training. The results showed that children who underwent musical training performed significantly better than children without any musical training at all modulation frequencies.

Last year, Kuman et al13 investigated modulation detection threshold in vocalists, violinists, and non-musicians. In this study, they observed no significant difference in the modulation detection threshold between vocalists and violinists. Guclu, Sevinc, and Canbeyli14 in 2011 investigated duration discrimination thresholds in 17 adult musicians and age-matched 22 non-musicians. The results indicated that musicians had better duration discrimination thresholds compared to non-musicians.

From the research mentioned above, it can be concluded that musical training has a significant effect on temporal resolution ability in musicians. Musicians also demonstrate less age-related decline in GDT compared to non-musicians. Finally, musicians have better temporal resolution skills irrespective of the nature of musical training and experience.

Clinical Implication of Musical Training in Clinical Population

Exciting research is taking place in the area of how the brain processes, uses, and adapts to the requirements of music and, in particular, music training. In the literature, it has been observed that musical training has the ability to enhance pre-attentive and attentive auditory discrimination skills. Similarly, musical training also enhances brainstem encoding of auditory stimuli and better temporal processing ability.

The research also suggests that musical training can be used to enhance pre-attentive and active auditory discrimination skills in the clinical population, and it would appear that some of the new findings may eventually be applied to rehabilitative concepts related to people with hearing aids and cochlear implants, children with developmental language disorders, central auditory processing disorders, learning disabilities, dementia, and schizophrenia. Enhancement of pre-attentive and active auditory discrimination skills due to musical training in these populations may result in improvement in speech perception.


  1. Ragert P, Schmidt A, Altenmüller E, Dinse HR. Superior tactile performance and learning in professional pianists: Evidence for meta-plasticity in musicians. Eur J Neurosci. 2004; 19(2):473-8.

  2. Abdul-kareem IA, Stancak A, Parkes LM, Sluming V. Increased gray matter volume of left pars opercularis in male orchestral musicians correlate positively with years of musical performance. J Magn Reson Imaging. 2011;33(1):24-32.

  3. Hoenig K, Müller C, Herrnberger B, et al. Neuroplasticity of semantic representations for musical instruments in professional musicians. Neuroimage. 2011;56(3):1714-25.

  4. Paavilainen P. The mismatch-negativity (MMN) component of the auditory event-related potential to violations of abstract regularities: A review. Int J Psychophysiol. 2013;88(2):109-23.

  5. Nager W, Kohlmetz C, Altenmüller E, Rodriguez-fornells A, Münte TF. The fate of sounds in conductors’ brains: an ERP study. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2003;17(1):83-93.

  6. Marie C, Kujala T, Besson M. Musical and linguistic expertise influence pre-attentive and attentive processing of non-speech sounds. Cortex. 2012;48(4):447-57.

  7. Crummer GC, Walton JP, Wayman JW, Hantz EC, Frisina RD. Neural processing of musical timbre by musicians, nonmusicians, and musicians possessing absolute pitch. J Acoust Soc Am. 1994;95[5.1]:2720-7.

  8. Okhrei AG, Kutsenko TV, Makarchouk NE. Specificity of Auditory Cognitive Evoked Potentials in Musicians. Neurophysiology. 2012; 43(6), 507-509.

  9. Lee KM, Skoe E, Kraus N, Ashley R. Selective subcortical enhancement of musical intervals in musicians. J Neurosci. 2009;29(18):5832-40.

  10. Bidelman GM, Gandour JT, Krishnan A. Musicians and tone-language speakers share enhanced brainstem encoding but not perceptual benefits for musical pitch. Brain Cogn. 2011;77(1):1-10.

  11. Zendel BR, Alain C. Musicians experience less age-related decline in central auditory processing. Psychol Aging. 2012;27(2):410-7.

  12. Sangamanatha AV, Fernandes J, Bhat J, Srivastava M , Prakrithi SU. Temporal resolution in individuals with and without musical training. Journ of Ind Sp Hg Asso. 2012; 26(3), 27-35.

  13. Kuman PV, Rana B, Krishna R. Temporal processing in musicians and non-musicians. Jour Hear Sci. 2014; 4(3), 35-42.

  14. Güçlü B, Sevinc E, Canbeyli R. Duration discrimination by musicians and non-musicians. Jour Inform. 2011; 108(3), 675-687.


Prawin Kumar, PhD

Prawin Kumar, PhD

Prawin Kumar, PhD, is a Lecturer in Audiology at the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing in Mysore, India.

Himanshu Kumar Sanju

Himanshu Kumar Sanju

Himanshu Kumar Sanju is a post-graduate in audiology.

Correspondence can be addressed to [email protected].

ALSO SEE Nina Kraus and Samira Anderson’s article, “Music Benefits Across Lifespan: Enhanced Processing of Speech in Noise” in the August 2014 edition of The Hearing Review.

Original citation for this article: Sanju, HK, Kumar, R. Research Suggests New Avenues for Music Training in Aural Rehabilitation. Hearing Review. 2015;22(8):34.?