It’s a tired cliche: The musician swoops into the party and leaves with the most beautiful woman/man in the room a few minutes later. Turns out, it’s also a reality — and for an unexpected reason. Musicians are party superheroes because they can do something no one else can, hear.
A Boston University study published in Nature suggests that musical training teaches people to pick up on speech patterns despite background noise. In speech science, the difficulty in focusing your auditory attention to a single voice in a noisy situation is known as the classic “Cocktail Party Problem.” The solution is playing in a punk band.
Like physical exercise, the training that musicians undergo strengthens both their auditory abilities and cognitive facilities. Their ability to distinguish between similar pitches, timbres, and rhythms as well as their improved auditory attention and working memory, isn’t a music-specific skill. They can eavesdrop in a crowded room, understand mumblers, and make actual conversation with potential sexual partners.
To test musicians abilities, researchers had them and their non-musical counterparts listen to a series of sentences, which were “masked” by sentences whose location and intelligibility were varied. There were two types of masking: “informational,” which involved masking sentences that made it difficult to understand speech at the cognitive level, and “energetic,” which involved background noise competing with speech.
Musicians were shown to be less susceptible to both forms of masking, which the researchers think might reflect their improved ability to listen “analytically.” In cocktail party situations, their threshold for hearing was about 6 dB better than that of non-musicians.
Some studies have shown that the brain networks that deal with music processing overlap with the ones needed to process speech. Though the authors caution that it’s much too early to draw any conclusions about whether musical training automatically leads to improved speech perceptions, this study lays the groundwork for future studies, which could eventually tell us just how wary of musicians we should be.