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How We Hear

Read this page to learn how we hear sound.

First, here are the parts of the ear:

  • The outer ear
    • The outer ear is made up of the ear flap and the ear canal up to the eardrum.
    • The ear flap is also called the auricle or pinna.
    • The ear drum is also called the tympanic membrane.
    • The outer ear protects the middle and inner ears.
  • Please be patient - this picture may take a long time to appear.

    Image courtesy of EDEN - The Electronic Deaf Education Network

    (a) Outer ear   (b) ear canal    (c) eardrum
    (d) hammer, anvil and stirrup   (e) cochlea   (f) auditory nerve

  • The middle ear
    • The middle ear is made up of three tiny bones and the Eustachian tube.
    • The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. It opens and closes to make the pressure between the inner and outer ears the same.
    • Three tiny bones connect the ear drum to the inner ear. The bones are called the hammer (malleus), anvil (incus) and stirrup (stapes).
  • The inner ear
    • The inner ear is made of the vestibular apparatus and the cochlea.
    • The vestibular apparatus is three looping canals. They control your balance.
    • The cochlea turns sound into electrical signals that get sent to the brain. The cochlea is spiral-shaped.

Now, here's how sounds get from the outside to our brains.

  1. Sound moves from the outside to your outer ear.
    • The outer ear passes sound to the middle ear.
  2. Your middle ear passes sound to your inner ear.
    • Sound makes your eardrum vibrate like a drum.
    • The vibrations pass to the three tiny bones behind the eardrum. (These are the hammer, anvil and stirrup.)
    • The bones pass the vibrations to the inner ear.
  3. The vibrations go to the cochlea in your inner ear.
    • Tiny hair cells in the cochlea pick up the vibrations.
    • The hair cells turn the vibrations into electrical signals.
    • The electrical signals are sent to the auditory nerve, and then the brain.
  4. Your brain decides what the sound is.
    • The auditory cortex is the part of the brain where the signals are put with other information. The other information could be what you see, and your memories.
    • This helps us to "know" what we're hearing. (For example, you hear a car honk and think, "That's a car honking.")

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