The Human Ear

The Human ear is important to the study of acoustics because it is inborn pressure sensor. It is one of the most sensitive parts of the human body and its job is to sense pressure changes in air and convert these to electrical signals that the brain can process as “sound”. Humans can hear roughly between 20 Hz to 20 kHz but this range decreases with age. The human ear can sense sound intensities from 1 W/sqm to 1 trillionth of a W/sqm. What most people intuitively perceive as music loudness, pitch and timbre roughly corresponds to amplitude (or sound intensity, which is proportional to the square of amplitude), frequency and waveform shape. Of course, these are not one to one relationships because if a tone is too high in frequency (ultrasound) or too low (infrasound) it will effect the perceived loudness because it will not be heard at all, for example.

The human ear consists of three main parts: inner ear, middle ear and outer ear. The outer ear consists of the pinna, auditory canal and eardrum. The pinna (the only visible part of the ear) serves as a guide to guide pressure waves into the ear canal. The ear canal is filled with air which is necessary because sound needs a medium such as air to transmit pressure waves. The waves reach the conically shaped eardrum, which vibrates and sends signals to the brain to process.

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The middle ear consists of several dense bones (ossicles) called the hammer, anvil and stirrup. These are elastically connected and serve to transmit and amplify sound from the outer to inner ear. These bones are necessary because the pressure waves are being transferred to a different medium (air to ear fluid called endolymph) and require an impedance matching network to transmit sound effectively. This is not unlike the soundboard of a guitar (for impedance matching to air) or an electrical impedance matching network design for maximum power transfer from a source to a load.

The inner ear contains the cochlea and the semicircular canals. The cochlea contains thousands of tiny hair cells that are stimulated by the vibrations of sound. The semicircular canals contribute to our sense of balance, but not the sensation of hearing. The inner ear fluid causes the hairs in the cochlea to bend, which are converted to electrical pulses and sent to the brain. These are sent to the auditory nerve and are interpreted as sound.

The following diagram depicts the human ear as a passive electrical circuit using the “impedance analogy”. The eardrum middle ear section is shown to be a transformer to match the outer ear to the middle ear. There could also be another transformer between the middle ear and the cochlea, as stated before. Without going into excruciating detail, it is important to show that the human ear is not all different from an electrical circuit in the sense that it impedance matches and transforms/transduces different forms of energy.

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