A growing body of research suggests that cognitive functions, such as attention and memory, drive perception by tuning sensory mechanisms to relevant acoustic features. Long-term musical experience also modulates lower-level auditory function, although the mechanisms by which this occurs remain uncertain. In order to tease apart the mechanisms that drive perceptual enhancements in musicians, we posed the question: do well-developed cognitive abilities fine-tune auditory perception in a top-down fashion? We administered a standardized battery of perceptual and cognitive tests to adult musicians and non-musicians, including tasks either more or less susceptible to cognitive control (e.g., backward versus simultaneous masking) and more or less dependent on auditory or visual processing (e.g., auditory versus visual attention). Outcomes indicate lower perceptual thresholds in musicians specifically for auditory tasks that relate with cognitive abilities, such as backward masking and auditory attention. These enhancements were observed in the absence of group differences for the simultaneous masking and visual attention tasks. Our results suggest that long-term musical practice strengthens cognitive functions and that these functions benefit auditory skills. Musical training bolsters higher-level mechanisms that, when impaired, relate to language and literacy deficits. Thus, musical training may serve to lessen the impact of these deficits by strengthening the corticofugal system for hearing.
2009 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.