The ability to differentiate between talkers based on their voice cues changes with age

Yael Zaltz –

Department of Communication Disorders, Steyer School of Health Professions, Faculty of Medicine, and Sagol School of Neuroscience, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, -, 6997801, Israel

Popular version of 4aPP2 – The underlying mechanisms for voice discrimination across the life span
Presented at the 184 ASA Meeting
Read the abstract at

By using voice cues, a listener can keep track of a specific talker and tell it apart from other relevant and irrelevant talkers. Voice cues help listeners understand speech in everyday, noisy environments that include multiple talkers. The present study demonstrates that both young children and older adults aren’t as good at voice discrimination compared to young adults. Young children and older adults use more top-down, high-order cognitive resources for voice discrimination.

Four experiments were designed to assess voice discrimination based on two voice cues: the speaker’s fundamental frequency and formant frequencies. These are the resonant frequencies of the vocal tract, reflecting vocal tract length. Two of the experiments assessed voice discrimination in quiet conditions, one experiment assessed the effect of noise on voice discrimination, and one experiment assessed the effect of different testing methods on voice discrimination. In all experiments, an adaptive procedure was used to assess voice discrimination. In addition, high-order cognitive abilities such as non-verbal intelligence, attention, and processing speed were evaluated. The results showed that the youngest children and the older adults displayed the poorest voice discrimination, with significant correlations between voice discrimination and top-down, cognitive abilities; children and older adults with better attention skills and faster processing speed (Figure 1) achieved better voice discrimination. In addition, voice discrimination for the children was shown to depend more on comprehensive acoustic and linguistic information, compared to young adults, and their ability to form an acoustic template in memory to be used as perceptual anchor for the task was less efficient. The outcomes provide an important insight on the effect of age on basic auditory abilities and suggest that voice discrimination is less automatic for children and older adults, perhaps as a result of less mature or deteriorated peripheral (spectral and/or temporal) processing. These findings may partly explain the difficulties of children and older adults in understanding speech in multi-talker situations.

Figure 1: Individual voice discrimination results for (a) the children and (b) the older adults as a function of their scores in the Trail Making Test that assess attention skills and processing speed.