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Tympanic Membrane: Definition & Function

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  • 0:00 Definition of the…
  • 0:47 How Does it Work?
  • 2:23 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

Learn how the tympanic membrane, or eardrum, is involved in hearing. Discover how the vibrations created by a musical instrument are translated into sounds we hear. Find out why you should not be cleaning your ear with a cotton swab!

Definition of the Tympanic Membrane

Are you guilty of cleaning your ear with a Q-tip? You probably know that you should be following the advice: never put anything larger than an elbow into your ear. Cleaning your ear with a cotton swab or bobby pin can lead to a tear in your tympanic membrane, which could cause partial or complete hearing loss in the affected ear. Moreover, the cotton swab and the bobby pin actually have the opposite of the intended effect; they push the earwax further down into the ear canal where it can become stuck and lead to infection.

The tympanic membrane, or eardrum, is a thin layer of cone-shaped tissue that separates the outer ear from the middle ear. It facilitates hearing by transmitting sound vibrations from the air to the bones in the middle ear.

How Does It Work?

The tympanic membrane is called the 'eardrum' for a reason. (Tympanum, by the way, is Latin for drum). In order to understand how the tympanic membrane functions, let's first look at how a more traditional drum creates sound. A drum is a percussion instrument that consists of a thin, sturdy material, such as animal hide, polyester, or plastic stretched tightly across a hollow casing. When a mallet, drumstick, or hand strikes this material, it starts to vibrate at a particular frequency. These vibrations push the surrounding air molecules causing compression waves. Compression waves are named such because they are characterized by a compression or pushing of the air molecules.

The compression waves travel through the air, down your ear canal, and to your eardrum. Similar to how your hand caused the drum to vibrate, the compression waves strike your tympanic membrane, causing it to vibrate at the same frequency. The bones of your inner ear, the ossicles, are attached to the tympanic membrane. They translate these vibrations into waves in the middle ear fluid. The final step in hearing occurs in the inner ear where the cochlea, the cavity that translates the fluid waves into nerve impulses that your brain interprets as the beat of a drum.

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