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17: Physics of Hearing

  • 17.0: Prelude to the Physics of Hearing
    Such a wave is the physical phenomenon we call sound. Its perception is hearing. Both the physical phenomenon and its perception are interesting and will be considered in this text. We shall explore both sound and hearing; they are related, but are not the same thing. We will also explore the many practical uses of sound waves, such as in medical imaging.
  • 17.1: Sound
    Sound can be used as a familiar illustration of waves. Because hearing is one of our most important senses, it is interesting to see how the physical properties of sound correspond to our perceptions of it. Hearing is the perception of sound, just as vision is the perception of visible light. But sound has important applications beyond hearing. Ultrasound, for example, is not heard but can be employed to form medical images and is also used in treatment.
  • 17.2: Speed of Sound, Frequency, and Wavelength
    Sound, like all waves, travels at a certain speed and has the properties of frequency and wavelength. You can observe direct evidence of the speed of sound while watching a fireworks display. The flash of an explosion is seen well before its sound is heard, implying both that sound travels at a finite speed and that it is much slower than light. You can also directly sense the frequency of a sound. Perception of frequency is called pitch.
  • 17.3: Sound Intensity and Sound Level
    Intensity is defined to be the power per unit area carried by a wave. Power is the rate at which energy is transferred by the wave.
  • 17.4: Doppler Effect and Sonic Booms
    The Doppler effect is an alteration in the observed frequency of a sound due to motion of either the source or the observer. The actual change in frequency is called the Doppler shift. A sonic boom is constructive interference of sound created by an object moving faster than sound. A sonic boom is a type of bow wake created when any wave source moves faster than the wave propagation speed.
  • 17.5: Sound Interference and Resonance: Standing Waves in Air Columns
    Interference is the hallmark of waves, all of which exhibit constructive and destructive interference exactly analogous to that seen for water waves. In fact, one way to prove something “is a wave” is to observe interference effects. So, sound being a wave, we expect it to exhibit interference; we have already mentioned a few such effects, such as the beats from two similar notes played simultaneously.
  • 17.6: Hearing
    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.
  • 17.7: Ultrasound
    Any sound with a frequency above 20,000 Hz (or 20 kHz)—that is, above the highest audible frequency—is defined to be ultrasound. In practice, it is possible to create ultrasound frequencies up to more than a gigahertz. (Higher frequencies are difficult to create; furthermore, they propagate poorly because they are very strongly absorbed.) Ultrasound has a tremendous number of applications, which range from burglar alarms to use in cleaning delicate objects to the guidance systems of bats.
  • 17.E: Physics of Hearing (Exercises)

Thumbnail: The outer ear receives sound, transmitted through the ossicles of the middle ear to the inner ear, where it is converted to a nervous signal in the cochlear and transmitted along the vestibulocochlear nerve. Image used with permission (CC-BY-3.0). staff. "Blausen gallery 2014". Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 20018762.


  • Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).