Effects of Long-Term Musical Training on Cortical Auditory Evoked Potentials

Ear Hear. Mar/Apr 2017;38(2):e74-e84. doi: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000375.


Objective: Evidence suggests that musicians, as a group, have superior frequency resolution abilities when compared with nonmusicians. It is possible to assess auditory discrimination using either behavioral or electrophysiologic methods. The purpose of this study was to determine if the acoustic change complex (ACC) is sensitive enough to reflect the differences in spectral processing exhibited by musicians and nonmusicians.

Design: Twenty individuals (10 musicians and 10 nonmusicians) participated in this study. Pitch and spectral ripple discrimination were assessed using both behavioral and electrophysiologic methods. Behavioral measures were obtained using a standard three interval, forced choice procedure. The ACC was recorded and used as an objective (i.e., nonbehavioral) measure of discrimination between two auditory signals. The same stimuli were used for both psychophysical and electrophysiologic testing.

Results: As a group, musicians were able to detect smaller changes in pitch than nonmusician. They also were able to detect a shift in the position of the peaks and valleys in a ripple noise stimulus at higher ripple densities than non-musicians. ACC responses recorded from musicians were larger than those recorded from non-musicians when the amplitude of the ACC response was normalized to the amplitude of the onset response in each stimulus pair. Visual detection thresholds derived from the evoked potential data were better for musicians than non-musicians regardless of whether the task was discrimination of musical pitch or detection of a change in the frequency spectrum of the ripple noise stimuli. Behavioral measures of discrimination were generally more sensitive than the electrophysiologic measures; however, the two metrics were correlated.

Conclusions: Perhaps as a result of extensive training, musicians are better able to discriminate spectrally complex acoustic signals than nonmusicians. Those differences are evident not only in perceptual/behavioral tests but also in electrophysiologic measures of neural response at the level of the auditory cortex. While these results are based on observations made from normal-hearing listeners, they suggest that the ACC may provide a non-behavioral method of assessing auditory discrimination and as a result might prove useful in future studies that explore the efficacy of participation in a musically based, auditory training program perhaps geared toward pediatric or hearing-impaired listeners.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Auditory Cortex / physiology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Music*
  • Pitch Discrimination / physiology*
  • Time Factors