You may have noticed that when you’re in a crowded room such as a bar or restaurant, you have relatively little trouble in paying attention to what your social companion is saying.
This is known as the cocktail party effect—we can ignore competing noise, even if it comes in the form of other voices and conversations, to focus on the one that’s most important.
How the brain can do this is difficult to understand, although it likely uses a mix of techniques from recognizing the particular tone of the voice you want to hear, to spatial clues including direction and distance.
A new study from the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America has found that musicians have a greater ability to isolate and concentrate on a single voice when it’s overlapped by others.
The authors note that this skill likely isn’t a matter of speech processing, but rather comes from a musicians ability to separate different audio streams into meaningful elements—such as mentally isolating the bass, guitar, synths and other sections of a song.
This is a skill known as stream segregation. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin touches slightly on this point in his book This Is Your Brain On Music:
If you’re at an outdoor concert with several ensembles playing at once, the sounds of the orchestra in front of you will cohere into a single auditory entity, separate from the other orchestras behind you and off to the side. Through an act of volition (attention) you can then focus on just the violins of the orchestra in front of you, just as you can follow a conversation with the person next to you in a crowded room full of conversations. —Daniel Levitin
Anyone that’s seen a political debate knows how argumentative they can get, with many speakers trying to gain the upper hand by raising their voice and talking over the top of their opposition.
While the effectiveness of this type of argument in relation to the political agenda is up for its own debate, it does provide an excellent environment to test out your own stream segregation ability.
Scientific American did just this in a recent 60-Second Science podcast that you can listen to here.
Becoming a musician has already shown to come with numerous benefits, now we can tack on the ability to understand debates with more clarity.