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College Physics

17.6 Hearing

College Physics17.6 Hearing

Table of contents
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Introduction: The Nature of Science and Physics
    1. Introduction to Science and the Realm of Physics, Physical Quantities, and Units
    2. 1.1 Physics: An Introduction
    3. 1.2 Physical Quantities and Units
    4. 1.3 Accuracy, Precision, and Significant Figures
    5. 1.4 Approximation
    6. Glossary
    7. Section Summary
    8. Conceptual Questions
    9. Problems & Exercises
  3. 2 Kinematics
    1. Introduction to One-Dimensional Kinematics
    2. 2.1 Displacement
    3. 2.2 Vectors, Scalars, and Coordinate Systems
    4. 2.3 Time, Velocity, and Speed
    5. 2.4 Acceleration
    6. 2.5 Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension
    7. 2.6 Problem-Solving Basics for One-Dimensional Kinematics
    8. 2.7 Falling Objects
    9. 2.8 Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  4. 3 Two-Dimensional Kinematics
    1. Introduction to Two-Dimensional Kinematics
    2. 3.1 Kinematics in Two Dimensions: An Introduction
    3. 3.2 Vector Addition and Subtraction: Graphical Methods
    4. 3.3 Vector Addition and Subtraction: Analytical Methods
    5. 3.4 Projectile Motion
    6. 3.5 Addition of Velocities
    7. Glossary
    8. Section Summary
    9. Conceptual Questions
    10. Problems & Exercises
  5. 4 Dynamics: Force and Newton's Laws of Motion
    1. Introduction to Dynamics: Newton’s Laws of Motion
    2. 4.1 Development of Force Concept
    3. 4.2 Newton’s First Law of Motion: Inertia
    4. 4.3 Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Concept of a System
    5. 4.4 Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Symmetry in Forces
    6. 4.5 Normal, Tension, and Other Examples of Forces
    7. 4.6 Problem-Solving Strategies
    8. 4.7 Further Applications of Newton’s Laws of Motion
    9. 4.8 Extended Topic: The Four Basic Forces—An Introduction
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  6. 5 Further Applications of Newton's Laws: Friction, Drag, and Elasticity
    1. Introduction: Further Applications of Newton’s Laws
    2. 5.1 Friction
    3. 5.2 Drag Forces
    4. 5.3 Elasticity: Stress and Strain
    5. Glossary
    6. Section Summary
    7. Conceptual Questions
    8. Problems & Exercises
  7. 6 Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
    1. Introduction to Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
    2. 6.1 Rotation Angle and Angular Velocity
    3. 6.2 Centripetal Acceleration
    4. 6.3 Centripetal Force
    5. 6.4 Fictitious Forces and Non-inertial Frames: The Coriolis Force
    6. 6.5 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    7. 6.6 Satellites and Kepler’s Laws: An Argument for Simplicity
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  8. 7 Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
    1. Introduction to Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
    2. 7.1 Work: The Scientific Definition
    3. 7.2 Kinetic Energy and the Work-Energy Theorem
    4. 7.3 Gravitational Potential Energy
    5. 7.4 Conservative Forces and Potential Energy
    6. 7.5 Nonconservative Forces
    7. 7.6 Conservation of Energy
    8. 7.7 Power
    9. 7.8 Work, Energy, and Power in Humans
    10. 7.9 World Energy Use
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  9. 8 Linear Momentum and Collisions
    1. Introduction to Linear Momentum and Collisions
    2. 8.1 Linear Momentum and Force
    3. 8.2 Impulse
    4. 8.3 Conservation of Momentum
    5. 8.4 Elastic Collisions in One Dimension
    6. 8.5 Inelastic Collisions in One Dimension
    7. 8.6 Collisions of Point Masses in Two Dimensions
    8. 8.7 Introduction to Rocket Propulsion
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  10. 9 Statics and Torque
    1. Introduction to Statics and Torque
    2. 9.1 The First Condition for Equilibrium
    3. 9.2 The Second Condition for Equilibrium
    4. 9.3 Stability
    5. 9.4 Applications of Statics, Including Problem-Solving Strategies
    6. 9.5 Simple Machines
    7. 9.6 Forces and Torques in Muscles and Joints
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  11. 10 Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
    1. Introduction to Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
    2. 10.1 Angular Acceleration
    3. 10.2 Kinematics of Rotational Motion
    4. 10.3 Dynamics of Rotational Motion: Rotational Inertia
    5. 10.4 Rotational Kinetic Energy: Work and Energy Revisited
    6. 10.5 Angular Momentum and Its Conservation
    7. 10.6 Collisions of Extended Bodies in Two Dimensions
    8. 10.7 Gyroscopic Effects: Vector Aspects of Angular Momentum
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  12. 11 Fluid Statics
    1. Introduction to Fluid Statics
    2. 11.1 What Is a Fluid?
    3. 11.2 Density
    4. 11.3 Pressure
    5. 11.4 Variation of Pressure with Depth in a Fluid
    6. 11.5 Pascal’s Principle
    7. 11.6 Gauge Pressure, Absolute Pressure, and Pressure Measurement
    8. 11.7 Archimedes’ Principle
    9. 11.8 Cohesion and Adhesion in Liquids: Surface Tension and Capillary Action
    10. 11.9 Pressures in the Body
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  13. 12 Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
    1. Introduction to Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
    2. 12.1 Flow Rate and Its Relation to Velocity
    3. 12.2 Bernoulli’s Equation
    4. 12.3 The Most General Applications of Bernoulli’s Equation
    5. 12.4 Viscosity and Laminar Flow; Poiseuille’s Law
    6. 12.5 The Onset of Turbulence
    7. 12.6 Motion of an Object in a Viscous Fluid
    8. 12.7 Molecular Transport Phenomena: Diffusion, Osmosis, and Related Processes
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  14. 13 Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
    1. Introduction to Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
    2. 13.1 Temperature
    3. 13.2 Thermal Expansion of Solids and Liquids
    4. 13.3 The Ideal Gas Law
    5. 13.4 Kinetic Theory: Atomic and Molecular Explanation of Pressure and Temperature
    6. 13.5 Phase Changes
    7. 13.6 Humidity, Evaporation, and Boiling
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  15. 14 Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
    1. Introduction to Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
    2. 14.1 Heat
    3. 14.2 Temperature Change and Heat Capacity
    4. 14.3 Phase Change and Latent Heat
    5. 14.4 Heat Transfer Methods
    6. 14.5 Conduction
    7. 14.6 Convection
    8. 14.7 Radiation
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  16. 15 Thermodynamics
    1. Introduction to Thermodynamics
    2. 15.1 The First Law of Thermodynamics
    3. 15.2 The First Law of Thermodynamics and Some Simple Processes
    4. 15.3 Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency
    5. 15.4 Carnot’s Perfect Heat Engine: The Second Law of Thermodynamics Restated
    6. 15.5 Applications of Thermodynamics: Heat Pumps and Refrigerators
    7. 15.6 Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder and the Unavailability of Energy
    8. 15.7 Statistical Interpretation of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Underlying Explanation
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  17. 16 Oscillatory Motion and Waves
    1. Introduction to Oscillatory Motion and Waves
    2. 16.1 Hooke’s Law: Stress and Strain Revisited
    3. 16.2 Period and Frequency in Oscillations
    4. 16.3 Simple Harmonic Motion: A Special Periodic Motion
    5. 16.4 The Simple Pendulum
    6. 16.5 Energy and the Simple Harmonic Oscillator
    7. 16.6 Uniform Circular Motion and Simple Harmonic Motion
    8. 16.7 Damped Harmonic Motion
    9. 16.8 Forced Oscillations and Resonance
    10. 16.9 Waves
    11. 16.10 Superposition and Interference
    12. 16.11 Energy in Waves: Intensity
    13. Glossary
    14. Section Summary
    15. Conceptual Questions
    16. Problems & Exercises
  18. 17 Physics of Hearing
    1. Introduction to the Physics of Hearing
    2. 17.1 Sound
    3. 17.2 Speed of Sound, Frequency, and Wavelength
    4. 17.3 Sound Intensity and Sound Level
    5. 17.4 Doppler Effect and Sonic Booms
    6. 17.5 Sound Interference and Resonance: Standing Waves in Air Columns
    7. 17.6 Hearing
    8. 17.7 Ultrasound
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  19. 18 Electric Charge and Electric Field
    1. Introduction to Electric Charge and Electric Field
    2. 18.1 Static Electricity and Charge: Conservation of Charge
    3. 18.2 Conductors and Insulators
    4. 18.3 Coulomb’s Law
    5. 18.4 Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
    6. 18.5 Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
    7. 18.6 Electric Forces in Biology
    8. 18.7 Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
    9. 18.8 Applications of Electrostatics
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  20. 19 Electric Potential and Electric Field
    1. Introduction to Electric Potential and Electric Energy
    2. 19.1 Electric Potential Energy: Potential Difference
    3. 19.2 Electric Potential in a Uniform Electric Field
    4. 19.3 Electrical Potential Due to a Point Charge
    5. 19.4 Equipotential Lines
    6. 19.5 Capacitors and Dielectrics
    7. 19.6 Capacitors in Series and Parallel
    8. 19.7 Energy Stored in Capacitors
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  21. 20 Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
    1. Introduction to Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
    2. 20.1 Current
    3. 20.2 Ohm’s Law: Resistance and Simple Circuits
    4. 20.3 Resistance and Resistivity
    5. 20.4 Electric Power and Energy
    6. 20.5 Alternating Current versus Direct Current
    7. 20.6 Electric Hazards and the Human Body
    8. 20.7 Nerve Conduction–Electrocardiograms
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  22. 21 Circuits and DC Instruments
    1. Introduction to Circuits and DC Instruments
    2. 21.1 Resistors in Series and Parallel
    3. 21.2 Electromotive Force: Terminal Voltage
    4. 21.3 Kirchhoff’s Rules
    5. 21.4 DC Voltmeters and Ammeters
    6. 21.5 Null Measurements
    7. 21.6 DC Circuits Containing Resistors and Capacitors
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  23. 22 Magnetism
    1. Introduction to Magnetism
    2. 22.1 Magnets
    3. 22.2 Ferromagnets and Electromagnets
    4. 22.3 Magnetic Fields and Magnetic Field Lines
    5. 22.4 Magnetic Field Strength: Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field
    6. 22.5 Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field: Examples and Applications
    7. 22.6 The Hall Effect
    8. 22.7 Magnetic Force on a Current-Carrying Conductor
    9. 22.8 Torque on a Current Loop: Motors and Meters
    10. 22.9 Magnetic Fields Produced by Currents: Ampere’s Law
    11. 22.10 Magnetic Force between Two Parallel Conductors
    12. 22.11 More Applications of Magnetism
    13. Glossary
    14. Section Summary
    15. Conceptual Questions
    16. Problems & Exercises
  24. 23 Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits, and Electrical Technologies
    1. Introduction to Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits and Electrical Technologies
    2. 23.1 Induced Emf and Magnetic Flux
    3. 23.2 Faraday’s Law of Induction: Lenz’s Law
    4. 23.3 Motional Emf
    5. 23.4 Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
    6. 23.5 Electric Generators
    7. 23.6 Back Emf
    8. 23.7 Transformers
    9. 23.8 Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices
    10. 23.9 Inductance
    11. 23.10 RL Circuits
    12. 23.11 Reactance, Inductive and Capacitive
    13. 23.12 RLC Series AC Circuits
    14. Glossary
    15. Section Summary
    16. Conceptual Questions
    17. Problems & Exercises
  25. 24 Electromagnetic Waves
    1. Introduction to Electromagnetic Waves
    2. 24.1 Maxwell’s Equations: Electromagnetic Waves Predicted and Observed
    3. 24.2 Production of Electromagnetic Waves
    4. 24.3 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    5. 24.4 Energy in Electromagnetic Waves
    6. Glossary
    7. Section Summary
    8. Conceptual Questions
    9. Problems & Exercises
  26. 25 Geometric Optics
    1. Introduction to Geometric Optics
    2. 25.1 The Ray Aspect of Light
    3. 25.2 The Law of Reflection
    4. 25.3 The Law of Refraction
    5. 25.4 Total Internal Reflection
    6. 25.5 Dispersion: The Rainbow and Prisms
    7. 25.6 Image Formation by Lenses
    8. 25.7 Image Formation by Mirrors
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  27. 26 Vision and Optical Instruments
    1. Introduction to Vision and Optical Instruments
    2. 26.1 Physics of the Eye
    3. 26.2 Vision Correction
    4. 26.3 Color and Color Vision
    5. 26.4 Microscopes
    6. 26.5 Telescopes
    7. 26.6 Aberrations
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  28. 27 Wave Optics
    1. Introduction to Wave Optics
    2. 27.1 The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference
    3. 27.2 Huygens's Principle: Diffraction
    4. 27.3 Young’s Double Slit Experiment
    5. 27.4 Multiple Slit Diffraction
    6. 27.5 Single Slit Diffraction
    7. 27.6 Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion
    8. 27.7 Thin Film Interference
    9. 27.8 Polarization
    10. 27.9 *Extended Topic* Microscopy Enhanced by the Wave Characteristics of Light
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  29. 28 Special Relativity
    1. Introduction to Special Relativity
    2. 28.1 Einstein’s Postulates
    3. 28.2 Simultaneity And Time Dilation
    4. 28.3 Length Contraction
    5. 28.4 Relativistic Addition of Velocities
    6. 28.5 Relativistic Momentum
    7. 28.6 Relativistic Energy
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  30. 29 Quantum Physics
    1. Introduction to Quantum Physics
    2. 29.1 Quantization of Energy
    3. 29.2 The Photoelectric Effect
    4. 29.3 Photon Energies and the Electromagnetic Spectrum
    5. 29.4 Photon Momentum
    6. 29.5 The Particle-Wave Duality
    7. 29.6 The Wave Nature of Matter
    8. 29.7 Probability: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
    9. 29.8 The Particle-Wave Duality Reviewed
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  31. 30 Atomic Physics
    1. Introduction to Atomic Physics
    2. 30.1 Discovery of the Atom
    3. 30.2 Discovery of the Parts of the Atom: Electrons and Nuclei
    4. 30.3 Bohr’s Theory of the Hydrogen Atom
    5. 30.4 X Rays: Atomic Origins and Applications
    6. 30.5 Applications of Atomic Excitations and De-Excitations
    7. 30.6 The Wave Nature of Matter Causes Quantization
    8. 30.7 Patterns in Spectra Reveal More Quantization
    9. 30.8 Quantum Numbers and Rules
    10. 30.9 The Pauli Exclusion Principle
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  32. 31 Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
    1. Introduction to Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
    2. 31.1 Nuclear Radioactivity
    3. 31.2 Radiation Detection and Detectors
    4. 31.3 Substructure of the Nucleus
    5. 31.4 Nuclear Decay and Conservation Laws
    6. 31.5 Half-Life and Activity
    7. 31.6 Binding Energy
    8. 31.7 Tunneling
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  33. 32 Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics
    1. Introduction to Applications of Nuclear Physics
    2. 32.1 Medical Imaging and Diagnostics
    3. 32.2 Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation
    4. 32.3 Therapeutic Uses of Ionizing Radiation
    5. 32.4 Food Irradiation
    6. 32.5 Fusion
    7. 32.6 Fission
    8. 32.7 Nuclear Weapons
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  34. 33 Particle Physics
    1. Introduction to Particle Physics
    2. 33.1 The Yukawa Particle and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle Revisited
    3. 33.2 The Four Basic Forces
    4. 33.3 Accelerators Create Matter from Energy
    5. 33.4 Particles, Patterns, and Conservation Laws
    6. 33.5 Quarks: Is That All There Is?
    7. 33.6 GUTs: The Unification of Forces
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  35. 34 Frontiers of Physics
    1. Introduction to Frontiers of Physics
    2. 34.1 Cosmology and Particle Physics
    3. 34.2 General Relativity and Quantum Gravity
    4. 34.3 Superstrings
    5. 34.4 Dark Matter and Closure
    6. 34.5 Complexity and Chaos
    7. 34.6 High-temperature Superconductors
    8. 34.7 Some Questions We Know to Ask
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  36. A | Atomic Masses
  37. B | Selected Radioactive Isotopes
  38. C | Useful Information
  39. D | Glossary of Key Symbols and Notation
  40. Index
Photograph of a musical band with a person singing.
Figure 17.34 Hearing allows this vocalist, his band, and his fans to enjoy music. (credit: West Point Public Affairs, Flickr)

The human ear has a tremendous range and sensitivity. It can give us a wealth of simple information—such as pitch, loudness, and direction. And from its input we can detect musical quality and nuances of voiced emotion. How is our hearing related to the physical qualities of sound, and how does the hearing mechanism work?

Hearing is the perception of sound. (Perception is commonly defined to be awareness through the senses, a typically circular definition of higher-level processes in living organisms.) Normal human hearing encompasses frequencies from 20 to 20,000 Hz, an impressive range. Sounds below 20 Hz are called infrasound, whereas those above 20,000 Hz are ultrasound. Neither is perceived by the ear, although infrasound can sometimes be felt as vibrations. When we do hear low-frequency vibrations, such as the sounds of a diving board, we hear the individual vibrations only because there are higher-frequency sounds in each. Other animals have hearing ranges different from that of humans. Dogs can hear sounds as high as 30,000 Hz, whereas bats and dolphins can hear up to 100,000-Hz sounds. You may have noticed that dogs respond to the sound of a dog whistle which produces sound out of the range of human hearing. Elephants are known to respond to frequencies below 20 Hz.

The perception of frequency is called pitch. Most of us have excellent relative pitch, which means that we can tell whether one sound has a different frequency from another. Typically, we can discriminate between two sounds if their frequencies differ by 0.3% or more. For example, 500.0 and 501.5 Hz are noticeably different. Pitch perception is directly related to frequency and is not greatly affected by other physical quantities such as intensity. Musical notes are particular sounds that can be produced by most instruments and in Western music have particular names. Combinations of notes constitute music. Some people can identify musical notes, such as A-sharp, C, or E-flat, just by listening to them. This uncommon ability is called perfect pitch.

The ear is remarkably sensitive to low-intensity sounds. The lowest audible intensity or threshold is about 1012W/m21012W/m2 size 12{"10" rSup { size 8{ - "12"} } "W/m" rSup { size 8{2} } } {} or 0 dB. Sounds as much as 10121012 size 12{"10" rSup { size 8{"12"} } } {} more intense can be briefly tolerated. Very few measuring devices are capable of observations over a range of a trillion. The perception of intensity is called loudness. At a given frequency, it is possible to discern differences of about 1 dB, and a change of 3 dB is easily noticed. But loudness is not related to intensity alone. Frequency has a major effect on how loud a sound seems. The ear has its maximum sensitivity to frequencies in the range of 2000 to 5000 Hz, so that sounds in this range are perceived as being louder than, say, those at 500 or 10,000 Hz, even when they all have the same intensity. Sounds near the high- and low-frequency extremes of the hearing range seem even less loud, because the ear is even less sensitive at those frequencies. Table 17.4 gives the dependence of certain human hearing perceptions on physical quantities.

Perception Physical quantity
Pitch Frequency
Loudness Intensity and Frequency
Timbre Number and relative intensity of multiple frequencies.
Subtle craftsmanship leads to non-linear effects and more detail.
Note Basic unit of music with specific names, combined to generate tunes
Tone Number and relative intensity of multiple frequencies.
Table 17.4 Sound Perceptions

When a violin plays middle C, there is no mistaking it for a piano playing the same note. The reason is that each instrument produces a distinctive set of frequencies and intensities. We call our perception of these combinations of frequencies and intensities tone quality, or more commonly the timbre of the sound. It is more difficult to correlate timbre perception to physical quantities than it is for loudness or pitch perception. Timbre is more subjective. Terms such as dull, brilliant, warm, cold, pure, and rich are employed to describe the timbre of a sound. So the consideration of timbre takes us into the realm of perceptual psychology, where higher-level processes in the brain are dominant. This is true for other perceptions of sound, such as music and noise. We shall not delve further into them; rather, we will concentrate on the question of loudness perception.

A unit called a phon is used to express loudness numerically. Phons differ from decibels because the phon is a unit of loudness perception, whereas the decibel is a unit of physical intensity. Figure 17.35 shows the relationship of loudness to intensity (or intensity level) and frequency for persons with normal hearing. The curved lines are equal-loudness curves. Each curve is labeled with its loudness in phons. Any sound along a given curve will be perceived as equally loud by the average person. The curves were determined by having large numbers of people compare the loudness of sounds at different frequencies and sound intensity levels. At a frequency of 1000 Hz, phons are taken to be numerically equal to decibels. The following example helps illustrate how to use the graph:

A graph of variation of sound level versus frequency is shown. The sound level is along Y axis and frequency is along X axis. There are thirteen curves each for some count on phons from zero to one hundred and twenty with an interval of ten. The graphs are similar in shape but rising in value with increase in phons. The graph has an initial fall from maximum value on Y axis reaches a minimum and then there is a wavy rise.
Figure 17.35 The relationship of loudness in phons to intensity level (in decibels) and intensity (in watts per meter squared) for persons with normal hearing. The curved lines are equal-loudness curves—all sounds on a given curve are perceived as equally loud. Phons and decibels are defined to be the same at 1000 Hz.

Example 17.6

Measuring Loudness: Loudness Versus Intensity Level and Frequency

(a) What is the loudness in phons of a 100-Hz sound that has an intensity level of 80 dB? (b) What is the intensity level in decibels of a 4000-Hz sound having a loudness of 70 phons? (c) At what intensity level will an 8000-Hz sound have the same loudness as a 200-Hz sound at 60 dB?

Strategy for (a)

The graph in Figure 17.35 should be referenced in order to solve this example. To find the loudness of a given sound, you must know its frequency and intensity level and locate that point on the square grid, then interpolate between loudness curves to get the loudness in phons.

Solution for (a)

(1) Identify knowns:

  • The square grid of the graph relating phons and decibels is a plot of intensity level versus frequency—both physical quantities.
  • 100 Hz at 80 dB lies halfway between the curves marked 70 and 80 phons.

(2) Find the loudness: 75 phons.

Strategy for (b)

The graph in Figure 17.35 should be referenced in order to solve this example. To find the intensity level of a sound, you must have its frequency and loudness. Once that point is located, the intensity level can be determined from the vertical axis.

Solution for (b)

(1) Identify knowns:

  • Values are given to be 4000 Hz at 70 phons.

(2) Follow the 70-phon curve until it reaches 4000 Hz. At that point, it is below the 70 dB line at about 67 dB.

(3) Find the intensity level:

67 dB

Strategy for (c)

The graph in Figure 17.35 should be referenced in order to solve this example.

Solution for (c)

(1) Locate the point for a 200 Hz and 60 dB sound.

(2) Find the loudness: This point lies just slightly above the 50-phon curve, and so its loudness is 51 phons.

(3) Look for the 51-phon level is at 8000 Hz: 63 dB.


These answers, like all information extracted from Figure 17.35, have uncertainties of several phons or several decibels, partly due to difficulties in interpolation, but mostly related to uncertainties in the equal-loudness curves.

Further examination of the graph in Figure 17.35 reveals some interesting facts about human hearing. First, sounds below the 0-phon curve are not perceived by most people. So, for example, a 60 Hz sound at 40 dB is inaudible. The 0-phon curve represents the threshold of normal hearing. We can hear some sounds at intensity levels below 0 dB. For example, a 3-dB, 5000-Hz sound is audible, because it lies above the 0-phon curve. The loudness curves all have dips in them between about 2000 and 5000 Hz. These dips mean the ear is most sensitive to frequencies in that range. For example, a 15-dB sound at 4000 Hz has a loudness of 20 phons, the same as a 20-dB sound at 1000 Hz. The curves rise at both extremes of the frequency range, indicating that a greater-intensity level sound is needed at those frequencies to be perceived to be as loud as at middle frequencies. For example, a sound at 10,000 Hz must have an intensity level of 30 dB to seem as loud as a 20 dB sound at 1000 Hz. Sounds above 120 phons are painful as well as damaging.

We do not often utilize our full range of hearing. This is particularly true for frequencies above 8000 Hz, which are rare in the environment and are unnecessary for understanding conversation or appreciating music. In fact, people who have lost the ability to hear such high frequencies are usually unaware of their loss until tested. The shaded region in Figure 17.36 is the frequency and intensity region where most conversational sounds fall. The curved lines indicate what effect hearing losses of 40 and 60 phons will have. A 40-phon hearing loss at all frequencies still allows a person to understand conversation, although it will seem very quiet. A person with a 60-phon loss at all frequencies will hear only the lowest frequencies and will not be able to understand speech unless it is much louder than normal. Even so, speech may seem indistinct, because higher frequencies are not as well perceived. The conversational speech region also has a gender component, in that female voices are usually characterized by higher frequencies. So the person with a 60-phon hearing impediment might have difficulty understanding the normal conversation of a woman.

A graph of variation of intensity versus frequency is shown. The intensity in decibel is along Y axis and frequency is along X axis. There are three curves each for some count on phon zero, forty and sixty. The graphs are similar in shape but rising in value with increase in phon. The graph has an initial fall from maximum value on Y axis reaches a minimum and then there is a wavy rise. The conversational speech distribution is shown as a strip across the graph.
Figure 17.36 The shaded region represents frequencies and intensity levels found in normal conversational speech. The 0-phon line represents the normal hearing threshold, while those at 40 and 60 represent thresholds for people with 40- and 60-phon hearing losses, respectively.

Hearing tests are performed over a range of frequencies, usually from 250 to 8000 Hz, and can be displayed graphically in an audiogram like that in Figure 17.37. The hearing threshold is measured in dB relative to the normal threshold, so that normal hearing registers as 0 dB at all frequencies. Hearing loss caused by noise typically shows a dip near the 4000 Hz frequency, irrespective of the frequency that caused the loss and often affects both ears. The most common form of hearing loss comes with age and is called presbycusis—literally elder ear. Such loss is increasingly severe at higher frequencies, and interferes with music appreciation and speech recognition.

Three audiogram output graphs of three individuals’ left and right ear are shown. The graph is for hearing threshold level verses frequency in hertz. The hearing threshold level is on Y axis and frequency is along X axis. The first graph has two curve nearly parallel to X axis. The second graph is straight for some range then has a dip at four thousand hertz. The third graph has a falling curve toward X axis from a maximum value on Y axis.
Figure 17.37 Audiograms showing the threshold in intensity level versus frequency for three different individuals. Intensity level is measured relative to the normal threshold. The top left graph is that of a person with normal hearing. The graph to its right has a dip at 4000 Hz and is that of a child who suffered hearing loss due to a cap gun. The third graph is typical of presbycusis, the progressive loss of higher frequency hearing with age. Tests performed by bone conduction (brackets) can distinguish nerve damage from middle ear damage.

The Hearing Mechanism

The hearing mechanism involves some interesting physics. The sound wave that impinges upon our ear is a pressure wave. The ear is a transducer that converts sound waves into electrical nerve impulses in a manner much more sophisticated than, but analogous to, a microphone. Figure 17.38 shows the gross anatomy of the ear with its division into three parts: the outer ear or ear canal; the middle ear, which runs from the eardrum to the cochlea; and the inner ear, which is the cochlea itself. The body part normally referred to as the ear is technically called the pinna.

The picture shows the anatomy of a human ear. All organs in the ear are labeled. There is a pinna or the outer end of the ear, followed by a long ear canal in the outer ear. The middle ear has the eardrum little arc shaped. There are small round and oval windows next to it. There are semicircular canals. In the inner ear are snail shell shaped cochlea and cochlea duct. There is a Eustachian tube that leads downward. There are cochlear nerve and vestibular nerves in the inner ear.
Figure 17.38 The illustration shows the gross anatomy of the human ear.

The outer ear, or ear canal, carries sound to the recessed protected eardrum. The air column in the ear canal resonates and is partially responsible for the sensitivity of the ear to sounds in the 2000 to 5000 Hz range. The middle ear converts sound into mechanical vibrations and applies these vibrations to the cochlea. The lever system of the middle ear takes the force exerted on the eardrum by sound pressure variations, amplifies it and transmits it to the inner ear via the oval window, creating pressure waves in the cochlea approximately 40 times greater than those impinging on the eardrum. (See Figure 17.39.) Two muscles in the middle ear (not shown) protect the inner ear from very intense sounds. They react to intense sound in a few milliseconds and reduce the force transmitted to the cochlea. This protective reaction can also be triggered by your own voice, so that humming while shooting a gun, for example, can reduce noise damage.

The schematic diagram of the middle ear’s system for converting sound pressure is shown. There is a pressure P one applied on the ear drum shown as a vertical line. The pressure P one travels along a horizontal line marked hammer as force F one. Then up a vertical line marked anvil and reaches a point marked pivot. Then this travels as a force F two along a horizontal line marked stirrup and reaches the oval window shown by a vertical line then passes by it as pressure P two. The pivot point has another support held vertically.
Figure 17.39 This schematic shows the middle ear’s system for converting sound pressure into force, increasing that force through a lever system, and applying the increased force to a small area of the cochlea, thereby creating a pressure about 40 times that in the original sound wave. A protective muscle reaction to intense sounds greatly reduces the mechanical advantage of the lever system.

Figure 17.40 shows the middle and inner ear in greater detail. Pressure waves moving through the cochlea cause the tectorial membrane to vibrate, rubbing cilia (called hair cells), which stimulate nerves that send electrical signals to the brain. The membrane resonates at different positions for different frequencies, with high frequencies stimulating nerves at the near end and low frequencies at the far end. The complete operation of the cochlea is still not understood, but several mechanisms for sending information to the brain are known to be involved. For sounds below about 1000 Hz, the nerves send signals at the same frequency as the sound. For frequencies greater than about 1000 Hz, the nerves signal frequency by position. There is a structure to the cilia, and there are connections between nerve cells that perform signal processing before information is sent to the brain. Intensity information is partly indicated by the number of nerve signals and by volleys of signals. The brain processes the cochlear nerve signals to provide additional information such as source direction (based on time and intensity comparisons of sounds from both ears). Higher-level processing produces many nuances, such as music appreciation.

Schematic diagram of the middle and inner ear with various parts labeled.
Figure 17.40 The inner ear, or cochlea, is a coiled tube about 3 mm in diameter and 3 cm in length if uncoiled. When the oval window is forced inward, as shown, a pressure wave travels through the perilymph in the direction of the arrows, stimulating nerves at the base of cilia in the organ of Corti.

Hearing losses can occur because of problems in the middle or inner ear. Conductive losses in the middle ear can be partially overcome by sending sound vibrations to the cochlea through the skull. Hearing aids for this purpose usually press against the bone behind the ear, rather than simply amplifying the sound sent into the ear canal as many hearing aids do. Damage to the nerves in the cochlea is not repairable, but amplification can partially compensate. There is a risk that amplification will produce further damage. Another common failure in the cochlea is damage or loss of the cilia but with nerves remaining functional. Cochlear implants that stimulate the nerves directly are now available and widely accepted. Over 100,000 implants are in use, in about equal numbers of adults and children.

The cochlear implant was pioneered in Melbourne, Australia, by Graeme Clark in the 1970s for his deaf father. The implant consists of three external components and two internal components. The external components are a microphone for picking up sound and converting it into an electrical signal, a speech processor to select certain frequencies and a transmitter to transfer the signal to the internal components through electromagnetic induction. The internal components consist of a receiver/transmitter secured in the bone beneath the skin, which converts the signals into electric impulses and sends them through an internal cable to the cochlea and an array of about 24 electrodes wound through the cochlea. These electrodes in turn send the impulses directly into the brain. The electrodes basically emulate the cilia.

Check Your Understanding

Are ultrasound and infrasound imperceptible to all hearing organisms? Explain your answer.

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