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How Do We Hear?

The brain and auditory system work together to control how we hear and how we balance ourselves.  The human ear is a complex organ and many scientists consider hearing to be the most complex of the human senses.

Sound can be detected whether a person is on land, underwater or in the air.  Hearing is our ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations that travel through our ears.  The main purpose of the ear is to turn sound waves from the air into electrical signals that are interpreted by the brain.

Sound: Rapid Air Waves Through the Ear

Sound travels through the auricle and the auditory canal, a short tube that ends at the eardrum. Sound entering the outer ear travels through the middle ear and causes the eardrum and ossicles in the middle ear to vibrate.  As it travels, it amplifies (gets louder) and changes from air to liquid.   When the stapes moves, it pushes the oval window, which then moves the cochlea.  The cochlea takes the fluid vibration of sounds from the surrounding semicircular ducts, translates them into signals sent to the brain by nerves like the vestibular nerve and cochlear nerve. The brain translates the information into recognizable sound patterns. It is a complex process but it occurs in a split-second of time. 

Vocalized and Non-Vocalized Sound

The human ear can detect different tones and loudness levels, which can help a person determine the direction of something (locate where the sound comes from), and helps to pick out specific sounds despite lots of background noise. Specifically, when someone is speaking, the sounds may be vocalized or non-vocalized.  

Vocalized Sound: Vowels

Vocalized sounds require a combination of air passing through the vocal cords and mouth shapes.

When a person is speaking, the vocal cords are in vibration.  There is no closure of the throat or mouth with these sounds.  And, in almost all languages, words must contain at least one vowel.

Non-Vocalized Sound: Consonants

Non-vocalized sounds are created strictly from mouth shapes. Lipreading is the process of visually detecting non-vocalized sounds. 

When a person is speaking, the quietest sounds are those that are actually easier to detect visually.  When a person can see someone speak, they can understand him or her better. This combination of seeing what is heard contributes to a better sense of understanding.

Auditory Pathways

The auditory pathways begin in the nerve fibers in the inner ear, where sound waves get converted into nerve impulses. These impulses then travel via the auditory nerve to the highest cerebral levels in the cortex of the brain.


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