Music class may benefit kids with cochlear implants

NEW YORK Wed Mar 10, 2010 2:10pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Music class may help improve certain types of sound perception in deaf children who have cochlear implants, a new study hints.

Cochlear implants are small electronic devices that can give a sense of sound to people who are deaf or severely hard-of-hearing, helping them to understand speech and other sounds in their environment. The implants work by bypassing the damaged portions of the inner ear and directly stimulating the auditory nerve.

Coupled with intensive post-implantation therapy, the implants can also help young deaf children learn to speak and understand language.

However, it is difficult for these children to enjoy music, according to the researchers on the new study, led by Dr. Joshua Kuang-Chao Chen of Cheng Hsin General Hospital in Taipei, Taiwan.

For their study, the researchers assessed 27 children with cochlear implants for their ability to discern musical pitch -- how high or low a musical note is. Thirteen of the children had attended standard music classes at the Yamaha Music School, which has centers around the world.

Overall, Chen's team found, the longer the children had taken music classes, the better their pitch perception.

The study, which is published in the journal Pediatrics, was not a clinical trial testing the effects of musical training on children with cochlear implants. So it does not prove that music classes can fine-tune sound perception in these children.

But the findings are in line with a past study that found that cochlear implant recipients who were assigned to musical training showed an improved ability to perceive musical timbre, or quality. Those study participants, however, had become deaf after they had learned to speak.

The current study, according to Chen and his colleagues, appears to be the first linking music classes to better music perception in children who became deaf before acquiring language.

It is important that children with cochlear implants learn to appreciate music, in part, because music and singing are a routine part of school, noted Dr. Lieber Po-Hung Li, another researcher on the study.

"The ultimate goal of the cochlear implantation is to help hearing-impaired children go back to the mainstream school," Li told Reuters Health in an email.

In addition, a better perception of musical pitch, timbre and other qualities might help children with cochlear implants more generally.

"Since music can be the most complicated style of sound in the world," Li said, "improvements of pitch perception surely will not only affect their experience of music, but their perceptions of other types of sound as well."

The findings are based on 27 children ages 5 to 14 who had received cochlear implants for congenital or early-life deafness. The 13 with musical training had attended classes for anywhere from two months to three years.

The researchers tested the children's pitch perception by having them listen to pairs of piano tones, then state whether the second tone was the same as or higher or lower than the first.

The children's correct response rate ranged anywhere from 9.5 percent to 92.5 percent, according to the researchers. Fifteen of the 27 were correct at least half of the time.

Overall, the longer a child had had musical training, the better his or her pitch perception. One child with 20 months of training, for example, achieved the high score of 92.5 percent. Another child with three months of training was correct in pitch perception 56 percent of the time.

Some children with no music training also performed well. One, for example, was correct 89 percent of the time.

Still, Li said, the fact that the duration of musical training correlated with pitch perception suggests that a structured music program should be incorporated into children's therapy after they receive a cochlear implant.

And earlier training might be better, the researcher noted. In this study, the relationship between musical training and pitch perception was stronger among the 18 children who were age 6 or younger.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, April 2010.

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