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Place Theory of Hearing: Definition & Explanation

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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

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

The place theory of hearing explains that certain sound frequencies cause vibrations in certain parts of the cochlea, causing humans to hear pitch differences. Explore the definition and explanation of the place theory of hearing, learn about frequency hearing, and examine the structure of the ear. Updated: 09/12/2021

What Is the Place Theory of Hearing?

The place theory of hearing is used to explain how we distinguish high-pitched sounds that possess a frequency that exceeds 5,000 hertz. According to the place theory of hearing, we can hear different pitches due to specific sound frequencies causing vibrations in specific parts on the basilar membrane of the cochlea. In other words, different parts of the cochlea are activated by different frequencies.

Each location on the basilar membrane possesses a particular characteristic frequency. For example, a sound that measures 6,000 hertz would stimulate the spot along the basilar membrane that possesses a characteristic frequency of 6,000 hertz. The brain detects the pitch based on the position of the hair cells that transmitted the neural signal.

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  • 0:00 What Is Place Theory…
  • 0:48 Structure of the Ear
  • 2:40 Frequency Theory and…
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Structure of the Ear

In order for us to truly understand the place theory of hearing, we must first have basic knowledge about the structure of the ear. This picture depicts the different parts of the human ear.

human ear

We absorb sound into the outer ear, which includes the external auditory canal and the auricle, or pinna. The sound transforms into an acoustical signal after it is absorbed. The tympanic membrane, commonly known as the eardrum, is the part of the ear that separates the outer ear from the middle ear.

Once the acoustical signal has reached the middle ear, the motion of the ossicular chain, which is made of the malleus, incus, and stapes, causes the acoustical signal to become mechanical. The ossicular chain also carries the acoustical signal to the inner ear, the location where the sound enters the cochlea. This image contains the various structures of the cochlea. It also demonstrates how sounds of varying frequencies can activate specific areas of the cochlea.

cochlea uncoiled

Housed within the cochlea is the the Organ of Corti, also known as the hearing organ, which houses sensory hair cells. Once the sound enters the cochlea, it causes the hair cells of the Organ of Corti to move. The sound is then converted into nerve impulses that are carried to the brain through the auditory nerve.

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