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J Neurosci. 2009 Nov 11;29(45):14100-7. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3256-09.2009.

Musical experience limits the degradative effects of background noise on the neural processing of sound.

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Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208, USA.


Musicians have lifelong experience parsing melodies from background harmonies, which can be considered a process analogous to speech perception in noise. To investigate the effect of musical experience on the neural representation of speech-in-noise, we compared subcortical neurophysiological responses to speech in quiet and noise in a group of highly trained musicians and nonmusician controls. Musicians were found to have a more robust subcortical representation of the acoustic stimulus in the presence of noise. Specifically, musicians demonstrated faster neural timing, enhanced representation of speech harmonics, and less degraded response morphology in noise. Neural measures were associated with better behavioral performance on the Hearing in Noise Test (HINT) for which musicians outperformed the nonmusician controls. These findings suggest that musical experience limits the negative effects of competing background noise, thereby providing the first biological evidence for musicians' perceptual advantage for speech-in-noise.

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