Sound is about much more than the ears. We hear with our brains, for it is our brains that make sense of sound. Making sense of sound is accomplished by a vast distributed and integrated system of cognition, sensation, and reward — and in this system, the brain-to-ear connections are just as pervasive and important as the ear-to-brain connections. Consequently, our life in sound shapes us deeply — as a musician or a speaker of two languages on the one hand, or as an aging adult or an individual with a language disorder on the other.
"Music and Language – A Brain Partnership," a presentation by Nina Kraus of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University, will describe an objective neural measure of brain health that can reveal the imprint of our life in sound, and in particular, the impact of playing music on this neural signature. Playing an instrument is a whole-body workout — not just your hands and your ears, but your brain’s attention, memory, and cognitive circuitry, too. We can see how good a job an individual's brain does processing key ingredients of sound such as pitch, timing, timbre and rhythm.
There is a great deal of overlap between the biological processing of sound for making music and for language. We have learned that our neural measure has certain signatures, and the ingredients of auditory processing that are diminished in poor readers are enhanced in musicians. In fact, we have seen changes in the brains of poor readers after taking up music lessons, and at the same time, their literacy skills increase. Another neural signature is the aging brain. Playing music, even for a few years as a child, can maintain a youthful brain signature well into old age. By enabling an accurate neural snapshot of auditory processing, this brain measure can inform the tug of war between deprivation and enrichment, for our life in sound — for better or worse — changes the brain.
Nina Kraus, Ph.D., is a scientist, inventor, and amateur musician who studies the biology of auditory learning. She began her career recording responses from the rabbit auditory cortex and was one of the first to show that the adult nervous system has the potential for reorganization following learning; these insights in basic biology galvanized her to investigate auditory learning in humans. Her research has found that our lives in sound, for better (musicians, bilinguals, auditory training) or worse (learning disabilities, aging, hearing loss), shape auditory processing. She continues to conduct parallel experiments in animal models to elucidate the mechanisms underlying these phenomena.
Presented by the CCRMA Music and the Brain Symposium.