Contrary to common belief, people who use cochlear implants for profound hearing loss do respond to certain aspects of music, scientists have found.
A research team headed by an investigator at Georgetown University Medical Center said exposure to the beat in music, such as drums, can improve the emotional and social quality-of-life of cochlear implant users and may even help improve their understanding and use of spoken language.
The cochlear implant is designed for language perception but not for music perception, researchers said.
“By using music that emphasises a beat, we may be able to improve both,” said the study’s lead investigator, Jessica Phillips-Silver, a postdoctoral researcher in Georgetown University Medical Center’s Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition led by Joseph P Rauschecker.
Previous research has shown that cochlear implants, which bypass the outer and inner ears to directly stimulate fibres of the auditory nerve, are deficient in transmitting the pitch and tone quality of music; users report hearing noise when music is played.
Consequently, they may receive little training in music or musical movement.
In the study, investigators sought to objectively measure if users can synchronise body movement in time to music with a regular beat, comparing their performance to that of hearing individuals.
“We wanted to see if cochlear implant users heard and felt the beat, and if this tapped into sensory and motor areas in the brain,” said Phillips-Silver.
They tested nine users of cochlear implants and nine hearing participants, asking them to react to three different renditions of a popular style of Latin dance music that has a heavy beat.
Participants wore a Nintendo Wii to measure body movement.
The researchers found that both groups were able to move in time to the beat when drum music was used, although synchronisation was greater in hearing participants.
“The advantage of drum music to implant users is likely reduction of the complexity of the music as well as absence of pitch variation, which cannot be processed by the implants,” Phillips-Silver said.
The study suggests that cochlear implant users can enjoy a myriad of musical benefits if the composition significantly emphasises the beat, she said.
“We know that music training engages some brain plasticity – it refines the sense of rhythm, benefiting the perception of speech, so that may help them understand spoken language,” said Phillips-Silver.
“But also there is so much enjoyment in music – a strong beat activates the joy of body movement,” she said.
The study will be published in the journal Hearing Research.