Music may not make babies smarter, but it seems to improve hearing later in life. As people age, they often find it difficult to hear certain sounds. This is what makes it difficult for some older people to distinguish words such as “bill” and “pill,” from each other, especially in places like bars or restaurants with lots of background noise.

But those who studied music as kids have a much easier time following the conversation in a noisy restaurant.

That's because the brains of people who had musical training respond to speech sounds, particularly consonants, more quickly than do the brains of those who have never played an instrument, according to researcher Nina Kraus, a professor of communication sciences at Northwestern University.

She and her team found those who had played an instrument had biologically younger brains, or brains that functioned in a biologically younger manner, even if they had not played an instrument in decades.

As people age, the speed with which signals travels through their nervous system slows down, research has shown, but musical training helps offset that.

People who had played an instrument had biologically younger brains, or brains that functioned in a biologically younger manner, even if they had not played a instrument in decades.

To our brains and nervous systems, vowels are louder, longer, and less acoustically complicated than consonants, Kraus says. But to hear consonants accurately, “You really need fast, precise neural timing for consonants, both in quiet settings, and louder settings with more background noise.” Music seems to help improve that neural timing.

“[I]f you are a lifelong musician, who plays regularly, meaning a minimum of twice a week for 20 minutes, that experience offsets some of the biological effects of aging, and one of [the ways it does this] has to do with neural timing,” she says.

The researchers decided that they wanted to study the impact of childhood musical experience on the brain and nervous system decades after musical training had stopped. They enlisted 44 healthy adults, ages 55 to 76, to listen to a synthesized speech syllable (“da”) while they measured electrical activity in the auditory brainstem, the region of the brain that processes sound.

Even though none of the study participants had played an instrument in almost 40 years, those who had had between four and 14 years of music training early in life showed the fastest response to the sound. Their response was about a millisecond faster than that of people without music training.

“We know from animal studies that early experiences in the life of an animal have very clearly documented effects on how the nervous system responds to sound,” Kraus said. These responses can change with learning, they change with aging, and they change with the experiences people have in their lives, such as musical training.

“This study highlights the importance of education, and music education, for children today, and for their healthy aging decades from now,” Kraus said, adding that playing an instrument as a child seems to be an activity that carries over to other activities in human communication that involve sound, such as language because it appears to strengthen the connection between sounds and meaning in the brain.

The study is published online in The Journal of Neuroscience.