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Testing Models of Auditory Learning in Expert Listeners: Acoustical and Perceptual Processing in Designers of Novel Sounds

Principal Supervisor: Dr Frederic Dick (Birkbeck/UCL Centre for Neuro Imaging, Birkbeck College)

Co-Supervisor: Professor Susan Hallam (Department of Lifelong and Comparative Education, UCL Institute of Education)

Accurate and efficient perception of complex sounds including speech is fundamental to everyday life, yet we know relatively little about the perceptual and cognitive processes underlying complex auditory learning. Musical instrument training has been used as a means to understand how long-term and intensive learning in perceiving and producing musical sounds might benefit other auditory, language, and cognitive domains. However, most research has focused on classically trained musicians, ignoring popular music culture, and not taking account of current non-speech auditory environments, which are almost entirely electronically produced.

By contrast, this project will target the acquisition of perceptual expertise in students undergoing intensive training in sound design and engineering at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) in London. The student heading the project will conduct a series of longitudinal and cross-sectional investigations of the development and elaboration of training-relevant temporal and timbral perceptual skills during this period of training. Importantly, stimulus and experimental design will be informed by the expert knowledge of ACM faculty and students regarding the specific technical and perceptual skills that are acquired during the ACM course. 

The project will also focus on the neural mechanisms of auditory learning using cutting edge MRI techniques to understand how auditory representations form and change with intensive training.

This multi-methodology research is designed to address fundamental questions in cognition, neuroscience, and education.

Candidate requirements

The recruited student will acquire a high degree of proficiency in behavioural experimentation and auditory psychophysics, structured interviewing, and functional and structural neuroimaging. Candidates should have some background in statistics, basic programming, and neuroscience. Music performance, composition, or sound design experience, and a  good knowledge of music and/or sound processing will be advantageous for the student leading the project.

Key references

  • Krishnan S, Leech R, Aydelott J, Dick F (2013) School-age children's environmental object identification in natural auditory scenes: effects of masking and contextual congruence. Hear Res 300:46-55.
  • Dick F et al. (2012) In Vivo Functional and Myeloarchitectonic Mapping of Human Primary Auditory Areas. Journal of Neuroscience 32: 16095-16105.
  • Hallam, S. (2010) Transitions and the development of expertise. Psychology Teaching Review, 16(2), 3-32.
  • Dick F, Lee HL, Nusbaum H, Price CJ (2011) Auditory-motor expertise alters "speech selectivity" in professional musicians and actors. Cerebral Cortex 21:938-948.
  • Leech R, Holt LL, Devlin JT, Dick F (2009) Expertise with artificial nonspeech sounds recruits speech-sensitive cortical regions. Journal of Neuroscience 29:5234-5239.

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal supervisor: Frederic Dick,

Co-supervisor: Susan Hallam,

Further information about PhDs at Birkbeck is available from:

Application forms and details about how to apply are available from:,CODE1,CODE2:IPPAPP,RMPPSYCH,7011

Professor Michael Thomas, Postgraduate tutor,

For informal queries, please contact Fred Dick (, and include a CV and academic transcript.

Closing date for applications is 1 May 2015