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Can Musical Training Help Fix ‘The Cocktail Party Problem?’

(cbcparklane/Flickr)

(cbcparklane/Flickr)

By Barbara Moran

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Boston University Research News website under the headline, “The Cocktail Party Problem.”

Alan Wong first noticed the problem a few years ago. In a crowded bar or restaurant, he could barely understand his companion’s conversation. Wong, 35, blames the problem on a well-spent youth: “I went to a lot of loud concerts in my 20s, and now my hearing sucks,” says Wong, executive producer at Boston University Productions. “It’s a bummer,” he adds, “especially when I have a hard time hearing the lady friends.”

Scientists call it the “cocktail party problem,” and it’s familiar to many people, even those who pass standard hearing tests with flying colors: they can easily hear one-on-one conversation in a quiet room, but a crowded restaurant becomes an overwhelming auditory jungle. For people with even slight hearing problems, the situation can be stressful and frustrating. For those with significant hearing loss, hearing aids, or cochlear implants, cocktail parties become an unnavigable sea of babble.

“It can really affect communication,” says Gerald Kidd, a BU professor of speech, language & hearing sciences. “It causes people to avoid those kinds of places, either because they don’t want to work that hard or it’s just unpleasant to be in a situation where they’re not following things. So it’s a big problem.”

Selective Listening

Kidd and his colleague Jayaganesh Swaminathan, a BU research assistant professor of speech, language & hearing sciences, study the cocktail party problem, trying to understand exactly why this particular situation is difficult for so many people. Their research, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and published in Scientific Reports in June 2015, asked an intriguing question: can musicians—trained to listen selectively to instruments in an ensemble and shift their attention from one instrument to another—better understand speech in a crowded social setting?

“Music places huge demands on certain mechanisms in the brain, and at some levels, these overlap with language mechanisms,” says Aniruddh Patel, a professor of psychology at Tufts University and co-author on the paper, who studies the cognitive neuroscience of music and language. “The question is: would a high level of musical training advance speech and language as well?” In other words, can musical training help fix the cocktail party problem? Continue reading