At some point all hearing healthcare professionals test the hearing of adults with normal hearing who believed they had a hearing loss and children whose parents brought them because they suspected they had a hearing loss, only to find that their hearing was completely normal. In such cases, the hearing healthcare professionals often find themselves explaining that there is a difference between hearing and listening. You might have good hearing but it does not necessarily mean that you are a good listener. You might be surprised to learn that music can help your hearing, and help you train to become a better listener. How?
One could say that hearing is a sense, it is essentially passive. There is no real effort on your part. Even if you are not concentrating on what you are hearing, you still hear sounds. Although you hear the sound, you may not be aware of it, focusing on it, or giving any attention to it. Examples of this might be if you are reading a book and concentrating on what you are reading, you may not even be aware of other sounds around you. Or, if you are having lunch with a friend in a restaurant and your friend is talking to you, but you have become distracted by something. From then on you “hear” very little, if anything.
Listening is a skill that you actively have to take part in. Active listening requires attention – i.e. this is when you give attention to what you would otherwise be passively hearing. Active listening is intentional. It involves a level of concentration, paying attention to the sound, being interested in the sound, and being focused on it. In other words, you are thinking about or applying cognitive skills to the sound you are hearing.
What is a well-trained ear?
Having a “good ear” refers to two core abilities: 1) hearing accurately (including being aware of sounds, hearing detail, the ability to reliably judge details such as timbre and pitch), and 2) understanding what you hear (including classifying the sounds and attaching meaning).
Although the above relates primarily to having an ear for music, your listening ability overall can be improved with practice. When you practice focusing on and locating sounds, you can sharpen your hearing. Hearing exercises can assist you in identifying where sounds are coming from, as well as what, or who the sounds are produced by.
How can music help you to learn to listen more attentively?
Listening to music is not only enjoyable but may even be beneficial to your health and well-being. Amongst other benefits, according to some researchers, music can improve your mood, reduce stress, lessen anxiety, increase performance when exercising, improve memory, ease pain, provide comfort, and improve cognition.
Differences between non-musicians and musicians in certain brain regions have been revealed by scans. These differences relate to musicians being better in various auditory, multi-sensory, and cognitive areas than non-musicians. It is also suggested that musical training is the likely reason for the brain differences and the sensory and cognitive benefits, instead of an innate or genetic ability that musicians have.
Musical training can improve the brain’s processing of sound, including speech, which can be beneficial to hearing and communication, particularly in noisy environments.
Musicians can better detect small differences in timing and tonal quality in both music and speech. Their understanding of speech in noisy settings is also better. Besides hearing, they have other advantages too, including better short-term memory when compared to non-musicians, and being better at tasks that combine audio and visual processing, e.g. lip-reading.
The lifetime benefits of musical training can even help to compensate for some of the negative effects of loud noise and aging on hearing. Musicians with hearing loss who are older can understand speech considerably better than non-musicians with comparable loss of hearing and age.
It may come as no surprise then that in the study mentioned above, the participants who showed improvements in speech processing played a video game that had a strong musical component. The goal of the game was to detect minor changes in tone, much like something you would hear in a song. As the background sounds became louder, it became increasingly difficult to identify the tones, making the game more difficult.
This research proves that if you use the right training (musical brain training), training your brain can significantly improve your hearing.
Training your ears and brain
The subject of ear training or hearing improvement may be new to many people, but they could be engaged in it without even knowing. All musicians are essentially training their ears regularly, even if they are not aware of it.
Ear training also occurs when, while you are listening to music. You are imagining how to play it or attempting to distinguish which chords or notes are being played by individual instruments such as say piano, violin, bass, etc..
The ability to develop excellent and trained hearing is one of the most important characteristics of good musicians. This ability is evident in their art of deciphering musical components with only the help of listening.
Listening requires more than just hearing ears. The brain plays a significant role in processing sound, so fine-tuning the ability to focus on sound can help improve hearing. Ear training can also be beneficial to develop self-confidence and other cognitive functions like memory.
Here are some exercises that can help you train your brain and your ear
Try to distinguish different sounds in your surroundings. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. Think about what you are hearing. Try to differentiate between high- and low-pitched sounds. If you are in a restaurant or café, try to make out what the people around you are saying while they are talking. Listen to whatever sounds you detect and identify them e.g. birds, footsteps, machines, etc.
You can also place a speaker or radio in a section of one room and play sound/music that is at a volume level comfortable for you. Then, position a different speaker or radio, or any other sound source in another location in the same room, setting the volume to a level where the sounds from the two speakers combined results in a noisy environment. Finally, ask someone to read sentences while moving around the room. With your eyes closed, try to repeat each sentence you hear, and also to locate where the person is.
You could also turn on some music in a room, and as you listen to it, walk around your house. Pay attention to the sounds you hear and see if you can identify specific words or instruments. Practicing sound location and identification (by actively listening to different volumes and locations), exercises the brain’s ability to locate and understand sounds.
Use rhythm as a guide
Some people’s sense of rhythm is better than others. It can however be improved through training. An example of a simple way to improve rhythmic skills is by listening to a song and then trying to tap to the beat of the drums.
Sing the notes you are playing
You will need an instrument that has been tuned properly for this. As you play a standard Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B), try to sing each note of the scale on-pitch, as accurately as you possibly can. Play one note at a time and repeat until you match your voice with the pitch.
Listen to different music genres
There are various cultures in the world and a variety of music. Music produced in one country can differ from that originating in another. While modern Western music is characterized by an eight-note scale, Asian music is frequently based around a five-note scale. Over time your hearing will improve even more, as you practice the steps above and apply them to different genres of music.
Take musical classes with a professional
Tuition offered by a professional musician can be of additional value in developing your hearing.
Research suggests that combining brain training with hearing aids will help you benefit more from your hearing aids, and improve speech understanding in noisy environments. Whether you sing, play, or simply listen, music is an activity providing tremendous stimulation for body and mind, a fun activity with potential benefits, that is both enjoyable and useful for brain development.
Tuning your ears for music will tune your ears for sound, including speech. And, because music has so many other positive effects, it is an enjoyable process too. Perhaps the journey to better listening is not taken one step at a time, but rather one note at a time.