A growing body of research suggests that musical training has a beneficial impact on speech processing (e.g., hearing of speech in noise and prosody perception). As this research moves forward two key questions need to be addressed: 1) Can purely instrumental musical training have such effects? 2) If so, how and why would such effects occur? The current paper offers a conceptual framework for understanding such effects based on mechanisms of neural plasticity. The expanded OPERA hypothesis proposes that when music and speech share sensory or cognitive processing mechanisms in the brain, and music places higher demands on these mechanisms than speech does, this sets the stage for musical training to enhance speech processing. When these higher demands are combined with the emotional rewards of music, the frequent repetition that musical training engenders, and the focused attention that it requires, neural plasticity is activated and makes lasting changes in brain structure and function which impact speech processing. Initial data from a new study motivated by the OPERA hypothesis is presented, focusing on the impact of musical training on speech perception in cochlear-implant users. Suggestions for the development of animal models to test OPERA are also presented, to help motivate neurophysiological studies of how auditory training using non-biological sounds can impact the brain's perceptual processing of species-specific vocalizations. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled <Music: A window into the hearing brain>.
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