How does the ear work?

The ear picks up sound waves and transforms them into electrical signals which travel along nerves to the brain. The signals are interpreted by the brain and connected to other impressions and experiences – the sound is then perceived as loud or quiet, speech, music or a message such as “the phone is ringing.”

Illustration: Outer ear, middle ear and inner ear – as described in the article

Outer ear, middle ear and inner ear

The ear has three parts:

  • the outer ear (visible part, called the "auricle" or "pinna," and the external auditory canal)
  • the middle ear (the eardrum or "tympanic membrane" and the tympanic cavity containing tiny ear bones. These are called the hammer, anvil and stirrup, or "ossicles")
  • the inner ear (cochlea and the organ of balance, called the "vestibular system")

Sound waves reaching the outer ear cause the eardrum to vibrate. The vibrations are passed on by bones from the middle ear to the inner ear. This is where the actual organ of hearing, the cochlea, is found. The organ of balance with its three canals is also found in the inner ear.

What happens in each of the three sections of the ear?

The outer ear is made up of skin and cartilage. Like a satellite dish, it captures sound waves and passes them on to the outer ear canal. First cartilage and then further on bone help to keep this passageway open so that the sound waves can reach the eardrum without being affected.

The middle ear is an air-filled cavity also referred to as the tympanic cavity. It is connected to the upper throat by the Eustachian tube. Air moves in and out to accommodate different pressures in the outside environment. But germs can also enter the middle ear through the Eustachian tube from the upper throat.

It is the ear bones that are important for hearing: the malleus, the incus and the stapes. The malleus is attached to the eardrum, picking up its vibrations and passing them on to the inner ear via the incus and the stapes.

The sound waves are amplified by this transfer and then enter the cochlea. It is filled with fluid and lined with very fine hairs (hair cells). These cells convert the vibrations to nerve signals, which are then transported to the brain.

Menche N (Ed). Biologie Anatomie Physiologie. München: Urban und Fischer; 2016.

Pschyrembel. Klinisches Wörterbuch. Berlin: De Gruyter; 2017.

Schmidt R, Lang F, Heckmann M. Physiologie des Menschen: mit Pathophysiologie. Berlin: Springer; 2017.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on May 9, 2019
Next planned update: 2022

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.