Musical training strengthens speech perception in the presence of background noise. Given that the ability to make use of speech sound regularities, such as pitch, underlies perceptual acuity in challenging listening environments, we asked whether musicians’ enhanced speech-in-noise perception is facilitated by increased neural sensitivity to acoustic regularities. To this aim we examined subcortical encoding of the same speech syllable presented in predictable and variable conditions and speech-in-noise perception in 31 musicians and nonmusicians. We anticipated that musicians would demonstrate greater neural enhancement of speech presented in the predictable compared to the variable condition than nonmusicians. Accordingly, musicians demonstrated more robust neural encoding of the fundamental frequency (i.e., pitch) of speech presented in the predictable relative to the variable condition than nonmusicians. The degree of neural enhancement observed to predictable speech correlated with subjects’ musical practice histories as well as with their speech-in-noise perceptual abilities. Taken together, our findings suggest that subcortical sensitivity to speech regularities is shaped by musical training and may contribute to musicians’ enhanced speech-in-noise perception.
Parbery-Clark et al Neuropsychologia 2011