Helping children to reach their full potential.

Hearing loss, music and the brain: A short history and a bright future

We are excited to announce a new Hear and Say research study called “Music Education and Auditory Processing in Children with Hearing Loss” which is being led by Eloise Doherty, a PhD student from the University of Queensland. This study is a significant milestone for Hear and Say as this is the first time we have been involved with research combining both audiology and music. Keep your ‘ears to the ground’ for more updates on Eloise’s findings.

In May 1927, John Redfield published a paper called “Teaching Music to the Deaf”1, in which he described a successful band program at the New York Institution for the Deaf. As a musician, audiologist, and researcher, this paper intrigued me.

Redfield’s paper highlights just how far the profession of audiology has come. Our hearing assessments are now far more comprehensive, and we can diagnose children with hearing loss much earlier. Most importantly, we now have advanced hearing aid and cochlear implant technology. These give children good access to sound, an aspect of management that was severely limited in 1927. Ninety years of research has also given rise to Auditory-Verbal Therapy, which, coupled with early diagnosis and good hearing technology, helps children with hearing loss develop speech and language skills at the same rate as children with normal hearing2,3. This is the work for which Hear and Say has become world renowned.

The following quote from Redfield is also quite remarkable:

“Every deaf [sic] person gets more or less into the habit of not trying to hear; he fails to attend to sounds. This tends to a further deterioration of his hearing. But an enjoyable loud sound, such as band music, furnishes him something he can hear more or less, and [is] worth striving to get. He therefore attends to these sounds, and his hearing gradually improves.”

It would have taken a keen observer to notice this in 1927, and even today, this statement remains valid. The difference nowadays is that we would phrase our findings in more detail because we understand the factors that contribute to this phenomenon. Permanent hearing losses do not improve, but what does improve is auditory processing, or our ability to use the sound we hear.

Now we also know about the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, which allows the brain to change and learn based on the stimulation it is given. Neuroplasticity helps us develop new skills and refine them with practice, but it can also work against us. A lack of stimulation makes the auditory pathways inefficient, like a rusty machine. This can limit the hearing of an individual as much as hearing loss itself. On the other hand, auditory pathways that receive lots of stimulation run more smoothly and efficiently. This doesn’t change the hearing loss, but it improves the way the brain processes the sound that does get in, therefore helping a person to “hear” better.

As our technology and understanding have improved, researchers all over the world have realised that music education has great potential for improving auditory processing in children. This has inspired my own research, which looks at the effects of music and art classes on the auditory processing of children with hearing loss. Redfield’s article shows that this concept is not new, it just lay dormant for many years. In 1927, Redfield and the staff at the New York Institution for the Deaf knew that music education helped students with hearing loss “hear” better. Now we finally have the technology and knowledge to understand why.

While there has already been quite a bit of research into the effects of music education on the brain, somewhat less has looked at the effects of training in the visual arts. Some studies, however, suggest that visual art training may produce academic advantages and memory enhancements4,5, similar in some cases to the advantages produced by musicianship.

Although there are some obvious differences between visual arts and music, they also share many similarities. Firstly, they are both creative pursuits, which require patience and discipline. Both are suitable for children of almost any age, but take many years to master. Both require a variety of techniques which are developed, refined and extended by the artist as their skills mature. Each discipline requires the person to observe and reproduce the characteristics of different stimuli in their environment, either realistically or in variation. Both art and music can be considered forms of communication and are understood all over the world, regardless of the language spoken. Lastly, the histories of music and art are long and intertwined. They have developed in parallel for centuries, and there are countless examples of one influencing the other.

Auditory processing is just one of the many functions completed by the human brain on a daily basis. As such, it is affected by higher order brain processes such as attention and memory. So, if visual art classes can improve memory and school performance, does that mean that these effects might filter down to underlying skills like auditory processing? Well, at this stage, we just don’t know.

All research is inspired by something: a question that hasn’t been answered, an observation that doesn’t make sense, or a problem that needs to be solved. Sometimes unravelling these mysteries creates new puzzles, which are solved in turn. I am very excited to be working with Hear and Say to help tease apart a conundrum that has existed for ninety years. It’s time we added a new chapter to the story.

Eloise Doherty, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland

Eloise Doherty Headshot 2


  1. Redfield, J. (1927). Teaching music to the Deaf. Scientific American, 136(5), 310-311.
  2. Dornan, D., Hickson, L., Murdoch, B., & Houston, T. (2007). Outcomes of an auditory-verbal program for children with hearing loss: A comparative study with a matched group of children with normal hearing. The Volta Review, 107(1), 37-54.
  3. Dornan, D., Hickson, L., Murdoch, B., Houston, T., & Constantinescu, G. (2010). Is auditory-verbal therapy effective for children with hearing loss? The Volta Review, 110(3), 361-387.
  4. Cabanac, A. (2017). Arts and scholastic performance. Creative Education, 8(15), 2393-2399. doi: 4236/ce.2017.815163
  5. Rosier, J. T., Locker, L. Jr, Naufel, K. Z. (2013). Art and memory: An examination of the learning benefits of visual-art exposure. North American Journal of Psychology, 15(2), 265-278.




Maia’s Story

At 9.10pm on 24 October 2013 our beautiful daughter Maia was born. 

The moment of elation was short-lived as we immediately noticed her left ear was missing. I frantically looked to the medical team around me for answers but received none.

Panic set in as we waited 4 days in hospital for an ENT to explain her condition, by which point we already had all the answers from Simone, who runs the Microtia and Atresia Program at Hear and Say.

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