Listening to the brainstem: Musicianship enhances intelligibility of subcortical representations for speech


Auditory experiences including musicianship and bilingualism have been shown to enhance subcortical speech encoding operating below conscious awareness. Yet, the behavioral consequence of such enhanced subcortical auditory processing remains undetermined. Exploiting their remarkable fidelity, we examined the intelligibility of auditory playbacks (i.e., “sonifications”) of brainstem potentials recorded in human listeners. We found naive listeners’ behavioral classification of sonifications was faster and more categorical when evaluating brain responses recorded in individuals with extensive musical training versus those recorded in nonmusicians. These results reveal stronger behaviorally relevant speech cues in musicians’ neural representations and demonstrate causal evidence that superior subcortical processing creates a more comprehensible speech signal (i.e., to naive listeners). We infer that neural sonifications of speech-evoked brainstem responses could be used in the early detection of speech–language impairments due to neurodegenerative disorders, or in objectively measuring individual differences in speech reception solely by listening to individuals’ brain activity.

Publication Title

Journal of Neuroscience