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“What’s that?”, you ask.

If you have any inklings of this, welcome to genuine (even advanced?) adulthood.

For those of us who were privileged to had had music lessons as a child or who played and perhaps still play one or more instruments, consider this an example of redemption.

For those who have children or grandchildren for whom you are considering lessons, hopefully this will tip you into the positive mode.

Childhood music lessons improve hearing in adults – Children who take music lessons have better hearing as adults even if they stopped playing their instrument after just a few years of practice, a new study suggests.

[The violinists’ violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter]

People who learned to play an instrument while young are more responsive to complex sounds, making them better equipped to listen to a conversation in a noisy cafe or train carriage, researchers said.

Even those who had only played music for one to five years as a child showed a noticeable improvement over those who had never done so, in their brain’s ability to process sounds.

Although previous studies have shown that playing music has a healthy impact on our brain, the new paper is the first to demonstrate that the effects last for many years after people have given up the hobby.

Professor Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, who led the study, said: “All these [previous] studies have been done in people who at the time of testing were still playing an instrument.

“This is really the first time that it has been demonstrated that in the more typical scenario – where someone has played a musical instrument for a number of years in childhood but then stopped – that prior training has a long-lasting effect on how their nervous system responds to sound.”

The researchers used electrodes to measure brain activity in 45 volunteers aged up to 31 as they listened to eight “complex” sounds, each comprising an array of different frequencies and timings to replicate the characteristics of speech or a piece of music.

Although they did not directly test participants’ hearing, monitoring the brain signal enabled the scientists to see how effectively the nervous system processed various elements of sound.

Compared with people who had never learned an instrument, those with some level of musical training had a stronger brain response to the sounds, the researchers reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.

They were particularly effective at being able to pull out the “fundamental frequency”, the lowest frequency in sound which is key when listening to speech and music in noisy environments.

Prof Kraus said: “Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain, the study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning.

“We infer that a few years of music lessons also confer advantages in how one perceives and attends to sounds in everyday communication situations, such as noisy restaurants.”

There was no significant difference between those who had given up music after one to five years and those who had continued playing for up to eleven years, although the benefits from musical training were shown to dwindle slightly over time.

The scientists are already carrying out a second study to find out whether learning different instruments shapes the brain in different ways, and are planning a further experiment to see whether the benefits are still present in older adults.


What fascinates me is how tonal acuity not only helps one later on, but also what degree of this propels, or possibly, what are essentially prodigies to accomplish mammoth tasks as if indeed, alas, they were, literally, born to it.

Clearly a genuine prodigy has more going for him/her than mere tonal acuity. Amongst modern pianists, for example, I am well familiar with the trajectory that that giftedness had upon the hyper-gifted pianist Byron Janis, the McKeesport, Pennsylvania-born son of Polish-Russian Jewish parents.

One wonders quite how this prodigy factor links into premature deaths (happily excluding Byron, of course, who thankfully is very much alive and kicking).

My thoughts here run to composers who started young and died well before their times.  The earliest to pass on or that I can recall was Giovanni Pergolesi who exited at a mere 26 years.

Franz Schubert, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Henry Purcell, Georges Bizet, George Gershwin and Frédéric (or, Fryderyk) Chopin all died in their thirties, for Heaven’s sake, and roughly in that order of death in terms of their ages at the time, or as I seem to recall.

For each of them and for each of us who enjoy or indeed revel in their musical genius, we are left only to wonder what might have been for each of these men.

Granted, today’s modern medicine, or in the western world at least, would have prevented, say, Chopin’s death by tuberculosis, which nowadays is consigned to being a killer in the Third or Fourth World.

All of which leads to me ponder what Chopin would have thought of Hollywood’s ‘borrowing’ his Opus in A flat major Opus 53 or the Polonaise Héroïque and which morphed into something quite else.

As a refresher, here’s Vladimir Horowitz’s performance in my favorite venue in all the world, the Musikverein in Vienna:

(If this does not play, my apologies.  Please click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFvqvZOtCF0)

In the year that the 1939-1945 War ended, one Mr. Perry Como, another

Pennsylvanian and a barber by trader, exploded on the record scene with a lyrical adaptation of Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat.  It was titled “Till the End of Time”, rather fittingly for this discussion.

Till the End of Time 2

(If this does not play, my apologies.  Please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSJ-oT2ZBa0&feature=related

This theme came from a 1946 film of the same name with an all star cast including Dorothy McGuire, Guy Madison, Tom Tully, Selena Royle, Bill Williams, Loren Tindell, Ruth Nelson, Robert Mitchum, Jean Porter, Johnny Sands.

‘Till the End of Time contained an echo of the war in the stately, martial sound of the polonaise, but it was more appealing in its expression of an unquenchable yearning for permanence and an enduring love.

Hopefully, the musical treasures that talented composers across the ages have left as their musical legacies will indeed continue until the end of time.

Speaking of time, high time I get back to my tea and music lesson, well, at least my PG Tips!


Hat-tips to:

Nick Collins, Science Correspondent, D Tel http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9490108/Childhood-music-lessons-improve-hearing-in-adults.html