SARASOTA, Fla. (May 7, 2015) – Dr. Susan Fulton and her husband, John, were talking about budget cuts to school band programs a couple years ago when Fulton was struck by an idea that offered potential as a research topic.
She wondered whether basic musical training – learning to recognize changes in pitch, rhythm and tempo – could help children and young adults distinguish sounds more clearly.
Researchers have long acknowledged a connection between mathematical skill and musicality. Similarly, Fulton wondered if musical ability might actually produce a positive impact on auditory processing and provide the skills to understand speech in noisy environments. Put another way, can the brain’s capacity to distinguish sounds be improved through musical training?
Fulton, a researcher and assistant professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, is about to find out.
Three weeks ago, she received word she had been awarded an $8,490 New Researcher Grant from the University of South Florida to put her theories to the test.
Starting this summer, she’ll begin recruiting 40 USF students to serve as research subjects. To be eligible they must be between the ages of 19 and 40, have no more than two years of musical training, have no speech or neurological disorders and hear within normal ranges.
Students chosen for the study will receive extra credit.
The subjects will be expected to participate in hearing and brain wave measurements to establish a baseline.
Afterward, they’ll undergo two months of daily musical training through the online site, quavermusic.com. At the end, they’ll return for another round of hearing and brainwave tests to determine whether any changes occurred in the brain’s ability to distinguish sounds.
“Few studies have examined the benefits of musical training in non-musicians and no studies have examined the effects of online music training using common auditory processing tests,” she said.
Fulton already has access to a sound-attenuating booth at USF St. Petersburg, as well as a Compumedics Neuroscan device to analyze electrical brain activity thanks to a researcher friend at USF’s Tampa campus.
The bulk of the grant, she said, will go toward purchasing an audiometer, a machine that tests hearing. Commonly used by audiologists, audiometers emit tones of varying frequency and loudness, as well as words. The device can send sounds to one or both ears and control the volume of those sounds. The model Fulton has her eye on runs about $7,890.
If she can prove her theory – that online musical training improves auditory processing – then the door could open to a range of therapies for children who suffer auditory processing disorders, which afflict about 5 percent of school-aged children nationwide as well as 43 percent of children with learning difficulties, she said.
On a broader level, the findings might also demonstrate to boards of education and policy makers that school music programs make good academic sense.
Beyond their cultural contribution, the programs can have direct bearing on core academic performance and play a critical role in overall learning.
However, months of rigorous testing and data crunching lie ahead before Fulton can make that claim.
She figures the entire project – recruiting and testing the subjects, subjecting them to online musical training, then running more tests and analyzing the data – will take a minimum of six months.
The grant’s funding will likely come this summer.
“Changes in the brain often manifest electro-physiologically before they show up in behavioral measures,” she said. “This study will allow me to examine both at the same time in young listeners.”