Function & Structure of the Ears

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  • 0:56 Outer Ear
  • 1:45 Eardrum
  • 2:09 Middle Ear
  • 2:56 Eustachian Tube
  • 3:23 Cochlea
  • 4:17 Semicircular Canals
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Watch along as we follow a sound wave into the ear and learn about the structures it encounters. Also, did you know that your ears do more than hear? Learn about the role your ears play in keeping your balance.

Parts of the Ear

Did you hear that? Even if you can't distinguish what a sound is, every sound you pick up is thanks to your ears. Your ears are made up of three distinct areas: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. Each area plays an important role in your ability to hear.

The unique funnel-like structure of your outer ears makes them perfect for gathering sound waves. The tiny bones in your middle ear turn those sound waves into vibrations. And, inside your inner ear, those vibrations cause tiny hair cells to bend, which creates nerve impulses that travel to your brain for identification. In this lesson, we will learn about the stuff inside your ears by following a sound wave. Watch along as our sound wave gets gathered, processed, and sent off to your brain.

This sound wave will journey through the ear to allow us to hear it.
Sound wave

Outer Ear

Our sound wave, which we'll refer to as S.W., has just been generated and is flying through the air. Right now, S.W. doesn't sound like anything. That's because in order to be heard, he has to find his way inside an ear. Your ear is more than happy to welcome S.W. inside.

In fact, the unique funnel shape of your outer ear makes it an ideal collector of sound waves. The auricle, or pinna as it's also known, is the most visible part of your ear. If you picture the outer ear as a funnel, the auricle would be the mouth of the funnel and the external auditory canal would be the tube. S.W. must travel through the external auditory canal if he ever wants to be heard.


At the end of the canal, he bumps into a membrane, causing it to vibrate. This is the tympanic membrane, which you might know as the eardrum. It acts as the division between the outer and middle ear. At this point, S.W. transforms from a wave into a vibration. This allows his energy to continue into the middle ear.

Middle Ear

The middle ear is a difficult part of the journey for S.W. because he must get passed along by the three bones of the middle ear, collectively referred to as the ossicles. The vibration that S.W. started by bumping into the eardrum causes the first ossicle, known as the malleus or hammer, to vibrate. S.W.'s energy is then transferred to the two other bones of the middle ear, which go by their Latin names incus and stapes, as well as their common names, anvil and stirrup. S.W. feels like he is in the middle of a pinball machine as he gets pushed from one bone to another, but this is necessary in order to reach the oval window, which marks the division between the middle and inner ear.

Eustachian Tube

Before we leave the middle ear, you might be wondering about this tube. That's the Eustachian tube; it connects the middle ear to the throat. Did you ever feel your ears pop when you flew in an airplane? The Eustachian tube acts like a pressure release valve. As the atmospheric pressure builds outside your ear, the Eustachian tube opens to equalize the pressure. All you have to do to open the tube is swallow.


When S.W. leaves the middle ear, he finds himself swimming inside the fluid-filled cochlea. The cochlea is a curled tube inside the inner ear. It looks somewhat like a snail. It's here that S.W. will be transformed again. This time he will turn into a nerve impulse.

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