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Hearing or Sensing Sounds

by Ron Kurtus

One of your major senses is the sense of hearing. You sense sound with your ears, which operate in a manner similar to how microphones detect sound.

The sound vibrations are detected in the ear, changed to electrical signals and transmitted by the nerves to the brain where they are processed and recorded.

The characteristics of sound include pitch and loudness. You can also determine direction and distance from what you hear. Sounds provide information about the environment around you.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

The ear

The ear is the sense organ that detects sound waves and sends those signals to the brain for processing.

How ear works

The way the ear works is that sound waves vibrate the eardrum, just inside your ear. That send waves through a fluid inside a narrow tube called the cochlea, which in turn vibrates tiny hairs which are tuned to the different pitches of the sound. Information from the vibration of the hairs stimulates nerves which send the signals to the brain for processing.

Similar to microphone

The way the ear works is similar to the way a microphone works, where sound vibrates a diaphragm, which causes electrical signals to travel through a wire to a circuit card for processing.

Obviously, the operation of the ear is much more complex. But it is much more flexible and does not require batteries.

Sound characteristics

The sound you hear has both pitch and loudness. You gather information by sensing and processing waveforms with these characteristics.


The pitch or tone of a sound wave is determined by its frequency, which is the wavelength divided by the speed of sound. The sound you hear consists of different frequencies or wavelengths, which determine their pitch.

Humans and animals can only hear within a limited range of pitch or frequencies, depending on the species. This limitation affects their perception of the world around you, since there are sounds that you or animals can't hear that others can.

(See Sensing Pitch or Sound Frequencies for more information.)


The amplitude of a sound wave determines its loudness. There is a minimum amplitude required for you to hear a sound. This varies with the species of animal. Sounds that are too loud can injure your ear and result in loss of hearing.

(See Sensing Sound Amplitude for more information.)

Direction and distance

You can detect the direction a sound is coming from and, in some cases, its distance. The detection of direction is determined by comparing the sound heard by each ear. The detection of distance is more difficult and often relates to loudness and quality of the sound heard. 

(See Sensing Direction and Distance with Sound for more information.)


As with all of your senses, the purpose of hearing is to provide you with information of the world or environment around you. The processing of the sounds provides you with the information. Complex sounds from other people talking results in the ability to communicate.


Your ear senses sounds which consist of pitch and loudness. Animals and humans can hear sounds in a limited range. You can also determine direction and sometimes distance through your hearing.

Listen to learn

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

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Hearing or Sensing Sounds

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