After spending thousands of dollars on music lessons and instruments for their children, parents often watch in dismay as once-coveted flutes, clarinets, and violins are unceremoniously abandoned. Such investments in early musical education may not be wasted, however. New research suggests that even after going decades without practicing their instruments, lapsed musicians have sharper ears. To compare hearing ability in former musicians to people who never played an instrument, researchers measured the electrical brain activity produced by a type of auditory processing called “neural timing,” which enables people to respond to split-second changes in sound such as the transition from a consonant to a vowel. This ability declines with age and is key to interpreting speech (hence the need to speak slowly and sometimes repeat words when speaking to the elderly). Compared with their nonmusical peers, adults aged 55 to 76 who had studied music for 4 to 14 years as youngsters had more precise neural timing, even though they hadn’t practiced in nearly 40 years , the team reports today in The Journal of Neuroscience. The more years that participants in the study had spent playing an instrument, the more accurate their brain responses, the researchers say. Although previous research has shown that playing music can improve hearing skills, they claim that this is the first study to show such long-term benefits.