Your hearing system has many working parts. Your outer ear directs sound waves to your eardrum and causes it to vibrate. These vibrations move through your middle ear and into your inner ear. Finally, these signals travel to your brain, which translates them into what you hear.
Hearing — or auditory processing — refers to the awareness of sounds and placing meaning to those sounds. It involves a complex series of steps in which several parts of your ear and auditory nervous system work together harmoniously.
Your auditory system (hearing system) consists of many different parts, including your:
Successful hearing requires all of these parts to function properly.
Your outer ear consists of your pinna and your ear canal. Your pinna is the visible, external part of your ear. It funnels sound into your ear canal like a reverse megaphone.
Your middle ear consists of your eardrum (tympanic membrane) and your ossicles (tiny, sound-conducting bones called the malleus, incus and stapes). Your eardrum sits at the very end of your ear canal. Your ossicles — located on the other side of your eardrum — carry sound vibrations to your inner ear.
Your inner ear contains a spiral-shaped structure called the cochlea (which means snail shell). Tiny hair cells line the inside of your cochlea. When sound vibrations reach these hair cells, they transmit signals to your auditory nerve.
Your auditory nerve runs from your cochlea to a station in your brain stem (known as the nucleus). From that station, neural impulses travel to your temporal lobe — where your brain attaches sound to meaning.
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Your hearing process involves all of the auditory system parts mentioned above. Here’s a step-by-step guide to this complex process:
Many conditions, illnesses and diseases can affect your hearing, including:
Visit a hearing care provider immediately if you experience sudden hearing loss, even if it’s only in one ear. Seeking medical attention within the first 72 hours is essential to reduce your risk of complications, including permanent hearing loss.
Hearing care specialists are different from your primary care physician (PCP). They include:
If you notice a change in your ability to hear or understand, or if it seems like everyone is mumbling, schedule an appointment with a hearing care specialist. Hearing loss can occur gradually so it’s good practice to have your hearing tested on a regular basis. This is especially true if you have a family history of hearing loss.
A hearing care specialist will give you a hearing test called an audiogram. During this test, your provider plays sounds through headphones. You’ll press a button when you hear a sound. The results measure your ability to hear. Tests take place in your provider’s or audiologist’s office in a soundproof booth.
To protect your hearing, you should:
Auditory perception is the ability to identify and interpret sounds — and attach meaning to them.
Hearing helps you stay aware of your surroundings and connect to the world around you.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Hearing is one of the five basic human senses. It’s a complex process that you use every day but probably don’t think about too often. Many people have hearing difficulties. In fact, more than 37 million adults in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss. Today, there are many treatments and devices that can improve your hearing, such as hearing aids, cochlear implants and bone anchored implants. There are also resources to help people with profound hearing loss communicate effectively. If you have difficulty hearing, ask a healthcare provider about your options.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/21/2023.
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