Professional and highly skilled musicians have taught researchers in audiology and hearing science that the ear can be trained with practice.
Studies have uncovered that musical training creates more activity in the brain of the listener to help sort wanted sounds from unwanted sounds. Research further demonstrated that musicians have a listening skill that is helpful not only in musical applications but in other real-world listening situations, like hearing in noise. Noisy environments are challenging for every listener. Normal hearing individuals will understand between 60%–70% of speech in the presence high noise levels. Good listeners will employ a number of skills in order to understand speech in noise, including filling in the blank when a word is not heard, watching for visual input (lipreading and gestures), standing closer, and leaning in toward the speaker. With these skills, a good listener, even in noise, will be able to follow conversations fairly well.
Noise is naturally disruptive to understanding speech — but more so to individuals with hearing loss. Most hearing disorders are a result of permanent damage to the delicate structures of the inner ear including the cochlear hair cells. The more severe the loss, the more damage there is to these hair cells, leading to increasingly distorted and muted sound signals to the brain and a loss of specificity for speech. Therefore, individuals with hearing loss who wish to communicate verbally must learn additional coping and listening skills to offset this specificity loss.
Hearing aids and assistive listening devices are very important for treating hearing loss, but they are not the only treatment necessary for learning to hear again. Since most people delay getting hearing aids for years, the consequence is an under-stimulated auditory system. People with long-standing, untreated hearing loss become accustomed to not hearing and, consequently, not listening. This is not a surprise since it is hard work to listen when you can’t hear, and people with untreated hearing loss often withdraw from communication, limiting their opportunities for practice.
Wearing hearing aids does not mean the brain will instantly remember how to hear and listen. Hearing aids will return audibility for sound, but it takes time to adapt to new sounds, and it takes time to learn to listen again. Audiologists are trained to help people in both areas, with counseling and follow-up being the most important aspects of the hearing aid selection and fitting process. New hearing aid users need to be closely monitored on their progress with hearing devices, as well as counseled on auditory training programs when needed.
Hearing aid success varies widely, and not all listeners are created equal. The most successful hearing aid wearers are those who educate themselves about the adaptive process behind using hearing devices and take on the task of improving their listening skills by doing auditory training exercises. With all that we’ve learned in research with musicians, it is apparent that the ear can and should be trained to help compensate for loss of hearing sensitivity. Thanks to musicians and the researchers in the field, we have the tools and resources to make this possible.