Improve Your Hearing — and Your Musicianship

Does it surprise you that professional acoustic musicians have better hearing than others their age? In fact, one study discovered that the average 70-year-old musician can hear as well as a 50-year-old non-musician. But why?

The advantage isn’t in musicians’ ears — it’s in their brains, which interpret auditory signals better. According to neurobiologist Nina Kraus, “music transforms sound processing in the brain.” Researchers at Northwestern University hypothesize that musicians can better understand “speech in noise” environments because they’ve spent years listening carefully to specific sounds and discriminating between them on a regular basis.

How can those of us who aren’t full time musicians catch up? How can we incorporate ear discrimination into our daily lives?

Throughout the day, we’re surrounded by sound. Cars roar, birds sing, people talk, hearts thump, radios blare, refrigerators hum, computers buzz, cats purr. What do they have in common? They can all be described in musical terms. They each have a pitch, a rhythm, a timbre, a voice.

Listen to them. As you sit or walk, focus on one sound at a time. What is it doing? Is it remaining constant or rising and falling? Is the volume changing? Are two birds calling and responding, singing in unison, or harmonizing? Now switch to another sound. And another. Now you’re listening like a musician.


When you hear your favorite song, stop singing along to the words. Find one instrument that’s playing and hear what it’s doing. Listen to when and how the backup singers join in. Notice how the song begins and ends. Listen to the changes in the bass line.

When you listen to your favorite instrumental music, shift your focus from the thing you normally notice. Find one element or instrument and follow it through. When you listen to a choral piece, focus on the soprano line. Now turn your attention to the baritone.

Now you’re listening like a musician. Your brain is changing too, as it learns to separate out each sound.

Protect your ears too. Improving your processing of auditory signals is one thing, preventing further damage from loud noises is another. Music amplified at high decibels is an obvious culprit, but so are jackhammers, leaf blowers, and more. Carry some good earplugs with you, and use them when you notice that sounds are too loud. You can wear musicians earplugs (available cheaply online) to loud practice sessions or concerts if you want to keep the dynamic range even.

If you incorporate focused listening into your day, you’ll do more than improve your ears. You’ll become more aware of the beautiful sounds of the world — and you can channel that feeling into your next song.

Gayla M. Mills plays bass and performs on weekends with her husband Gene Mills on guitar. Two of their CDs received international airplay and were on the top ten folk charts. Her book Making Music for Life: Rediscover Your Musical Passion, published by Dover, provides amateur and aspiring musicians with hundreds of ideas for how to get more from music.

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