Using music to improve hearing, build social connection

Frank Russo, SMART Lab, Ella Dubinsky, music, hearing loss, seniors, hearing aids, Sonova, community, social impact

The 50+ choir performs with Brainstem Malfunction (the SMART Lab band) featuring director Frank Russo on guitar and graduate student Ella Dubinsky on keyboard.

Researchers at Ryerson University’s SMART Lab are making more than just music.

With the help of the Chang School, industry partners, and a couple of dozen or so seniors, they’re making a social impact as well.

Frank Russo, psychology professor and director of the Science of Music, Auditory Research, and Technology (SMART) Lab, and graduate student Ella Dubinsky are studying the effects of music training on hearing loss in older adults. Their research is particularly focused on improving an individual’s ability to hear speech in noisy environments such as restaurants.

“The number one hearing complaint in older adults is that once they’re in a noisy situation, they can’t hear anything. It’s very frustrating and debilitating,” says Russo. “Hearing aids help to a certain extent, but there’s more that can be done.”

Since January 2015, the researchers have been recruiting older adults to join a weekly choir where they learn how to sing for two hours every week, divided into 10-week sessions.

“Music is kind of a boot camp for your brain,” says Russo, himself a lifelong musician. “As we age, our ability to track pitch deteriorates. This is due in part to a reduction in connectivity of neurons that code pitch. Music helps make those neurons more connected and a person becomes better able to keep up with vocal pitch.”

For her master’s thesis, Dubinsky worked under the supervision of Russo to expand the scope of the study, incorporating several control groups. This was accomplished in large part due to cooperation with the 50+ Continuing Education Program of the Chang School at Ryerson University.

Three groups were formed whose abilities were tracked before and after the study: those who were part of the choir and actively learning how to sing; those in the music appreciation class who were talking about music; and those without musical training or knowledge.

The researchers found improved ability to hear speech in noisy environments amongst the group learning how to sing, who also showed improved neural encoding of sound.

“One of the critical variables is pitch matching, and leveraging the motor system to fine tune pitch perception,” says Russo. “Eventually, those learning how to sing must learn to match pitch accurately, which leads them to better perceive pitch. So when they’re speaking to someone in a noisy environment, they’re better at tracking the natural pitch contour of the speaker’s voice.”

The demand on a person’s auditory system is higher when making music than when listening to music, as the first task involved coordinating the motor system and auditory system.

Singing for social connection

But the reach of Russo and Dubinsky’s work has extended beyond improving hearing amongst seniors. Psychologically, participants are reporting increased feelings of connectedness, and decreased levels of stress.

“When you make music together, people tend to trust one another more and feel more connected to each other and that community,” says Russo. “You can do this with anything that involves a joint movement such as dancing, or even military marching. When we do coordinated movement as a group, we tend to feel bigger than ourselves. The status of the group elevates and we feel better about ourselves.”

What’s more are the actual physiological benefits of concerted group activities such as singing or dancing. Besides hearing improvement, cortisol levels lower, while “feel good” hormones elevate, according to Russo.

Russo acknowledges that not everyone wants to join a choir or other group activities. He is also looking for ways to develop online training as software or an app that can be used as a standalone piece to improve pitch perception.

While he recognizes these aren’t as effective as being part of a group in a choir, Russo says it’s a way to expand the reach of the SMART Lab’s research.

“The problem is computer-based training programs that target speech perception in noise can be super boring and adherence to the routine isn’t as good,” he says. “In contrast, choir singing is fun and adherence is excellent. People find a way to get to choir.”

The SMART Lab also provides participants with about an hour of homework each week in the form of computer-based tasks.

“We’ve gamified it so participants advance a level and the precision gets harder,” says Russo. “The neat thing is there’s some peer-to-peer competition within the group. They come to choir, comparing notes, asking what level the other is on, it’s another motivational factor helping people keep up with their homework.”

Done in conjunction, both the group work and computer tasks provide participants with the full spectrum of benefits from emotional to social to physiological.

Partnering with industry

Frank Russo, Ryerson University, psychology, SMART Lab, music, hearing loss, seniors

Dr. Frank Russo

The SMART Lab will continue to document their research thoroughly and work with the Chang School to coordinate music programming and choir sessions. Russo has also seen keen interest from Sonova, the leading hearing aid manufacturer worldwide, who has expressed an interest in adopting some of the SMART Lab’s practices.

Although the two groups are still working out logistics of running a training program, with both in-person and online elements, Russo is hoping a partnership can further expand the reach of his research and have a tangible impact worldwide.

“We’re very excited about our partnership with Sonova,” says Russo. “They have a genuine interest in adding value to their customers. We’ll probably begin by recruiting from their clinics in the GTA and finding people who are exclusively using hearing aids.

“We really want to have an impact on the quality of life in older adults. Our research adds another piece to the puzzle of the already proven benefits of music, music participation, and music training. We’re hitting some very important targets with this work. It affects everyone—everyone can think of an older relative experiencing hearing loss and social isolation.”

SMART Lab graduate student Ella Dubinsky recently won Third Place and Participants’ Choice at the Ontario 3-Minute Thesis competition at the University of Waterloo where she shared her research on music and hearing loss.

Tagged: Building Community, Health & Wellbeing

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