Frequency Theory of Hearing: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 The Frequency Theory
  • 1:20 Structure of the Ear
  • 2:08 Volley Principle &…
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

How is it that we can listen to music and hear each individual note? This has to do with the frequency theory of hearing and the structure of the ear. Learn more about the frequency theory and then take a short quiz.

The Frequency Theory

Martin is listening to his favorite song. He loves the way the notes rise and fall in a melodic way. Martin doesn't stop to think about how his ears allow him to identify the different pitches of the notes. He just knows he loves this song.

So, why do we hear the difference between notes in a song instead of just monotone notes? This is attributed to the frequency theory of hearing. The frequency theory of hearing states that the frequency of the auditory nerve's impulses corresponds to the frequency of a tone, which allows us to detect its pitch.

The way it works is that sound waves cause the entire basilar membrane to vibrate at different rates, which, in turn, causes the neural impulses to be transmitted at different rates. Basically, when we hear a musical note, it causes specific vibrations in our ears that lets us hear that specific pitch. Lower notes vibrate at slower speeds, while higher notes vibrate at higher speeds. As pitch increases, nerve impulses of the same frequency are sent to the auditory nerve. This means that a tone with a frequency of 700 hertz produces 700 nerve impulses per second. It is the speed in which the neural signals move along the brain that determine the pitch.

Structure of the Ear

So, how does Martin perceive musical sound? He absorbs sound through the outer ear, which consists of the external auditory canal and the pinna, also known as the auricle. Once the sound has been absorbed, it becomes an acoustical signal. The tympanic membrane, or the eardrum, separates the middle ear and outer ear.

After the acoustical signal makes its way to the middle ear, the movement of the ossicular chain causes the acoustical signal to become mechanical. The ossicular chain consists of the malleus, incus, and stapes and carries the signal to the inner ear. This is where the sound enters the cochlea. It is the cochlea that transforms the signal into nerve impulses that are carried to the brain via the auditory nerve. The brain perceives these nerve impulses as music.

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