Hearing, Its Psychology and Physiology

S. Smith Stevens and Hallowell Davis

Originally published in 1938; Reprinted in 1983



Preface to the ASA Edition

Preface to the Original Edition


  1. The Nature of the Auditory Stimulus

  2. The Sensitivity of the Ear

  3. Pitch

  4. Loudness

  5. The Other Attributes of Tones

  6. Auditory Localization

  7. Aural Harmonics and Combination-Tones

  8. Auditory Masking, Fatigue, and Persistence

  9. Modulation: Vibrato and Beats

  10. The Mechanics of the Ear

  11. Deafness and Bone-Conduction

  12. Principles of Neurophysiology

  13. The Microphonic Action of the Cochlea

  14. Considerations as to the Nature and Origin of Aural Microphonics

  15. The Localization of Frequency-Reception on the Basilar Membrane

  16. Auditory Nerve-Impulses

  17. Nerve-Impulses in Response to Tonal Stimulation

  18. Nerve-Impulses in the Higher Auditory Pathway





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Hearing: Its Psychology and Physiology was written in 1936-37 at a time when psychoacoustics had matured but auditory biophysics ad electrophysiology were still adolescent. Modern techniques for generating and measuring sound had been developed in the 1920s and they had been applied to the description of human auditory abilities. The Bell Telephone Laboratories, particularly the group headed by Harvey Fletcher, had led the way, and their data, assembled by "Smitty" Stevens in the first section of Hearing, are still valid. Additions have been made, of course, but few modifications of the basic ideas have been necessary. Stevens's lucid presentation of the psychological section makes the present reprinting worthwhile.

The physiological section describes the electric response of the organ of Corti, as observed by external electrodes, and also the whole-nerve action potential. Adequate instrumentation for the study of single sensory units was not yet available, but we were able to make some first-order comparisons of neurophysiological activity with psychoacoustic data and to venture some guesses concerning the neural code of the auditory system. Much of this section is now chiefly of historical interest. The speculations concerning the cochlear mechanics and neural excitation are woefully out of date. We did not then appreciate the significance of von Békésy's traveling wave concept.

Smitty Stevens and I discussed more than once, after World War II, whether to attempt a second updated edition of Hearing, but realized that a complete rewriting would be necessary. Instead Smitty edited a much larger project, the Handbook of Experimental Psychology. This was published in 1951. In it our updating was accomplished, chiefly by our colleagues Licklider, Miller, Rosenblith, and von Békésy, in their several chapters with also a chapter of my own. Smitty's untimely death in 1973 put an end to further possible collaboration.

Since 1951 new techniques and insights have followed with increasing rapidity, and perhaps the time is now ripe for someone to attempt a fresh overview and synthesis of auditory biophysics and physiology, but I hope that our early effort, as reprinted, will still serve as an introduction for students and give them a useful account of the foundations, laid some fifty years ago, on which rest our present concepts of the psychology and physiology of hearing.

Hallowell Davis
St. Louis
April 1983


Here is our book. It was originally conceived in the high hope of doing justice to a subject of inquiry which, within a decade, has undergone impressive transformation. Now, with the finished manuscript before us on the table, we are aware that the field of audition is already on the point of expanding beyond the confines of a single volume. And we find that our original purpose has had to accede to the practical demands of space. The relations of the science of audition to architecture and applied acoustics, to speech and phonetics, to the problem of noise, and to music are some of our deliberate omissions.

We undertook the preparation of this volume for two reasons. We wanted to provide the students of psychology, physiology, acoustics, and otology with an inventory of the recent discoveries in the psychophysiology of hearing--discoveries which up to now have enjoyed relative seclusion in scientific periodicals; and we wanted to test the progress of the study of audition by casting up the balance in systematic form, taking stock of the gaps and deficiencies, and finding to what extent auditory research is able to yield a consistent point of view.

The value of this book as an aid to the student of hearing might have been improved by a different order of the chapters, although the present order was dictated by a desire to achieve a logical development of the subject-matter, and not merely by the fact that a psychologist was responsible for most of the first half and a physiologist for most of the second half of the work. (Incidentally, both psychologies and physiologist did much rewriting of both halves.) The logic of the presentation is first to provide the student with the fundamentals of the science of sound--with a minimum of mathematics--and then to tell him what he hears when a sound reaches his ears, and what are the systematic relations between stimulus and sensation. Then, knowing what he hears, he is in a position to be told, beginning with Chapter 10, how he hears it. The functional anatomy and physiology of the ear, therefore, is the subject-matter of the later chapters. The reader who favors a different order can just as well read the last nine chapters immediately after Chapter 1. Numerous cross-references have been included to aid him.

A glossary of essential terms has been developed in the hope that it will prove useful as a convenient source of precise definitions, and two appendices have been added to provide convenient reference to some mathematical developments which may be beyond the interests of the general reader. A third appendix contains what we have found to be a very useful table for converting ratios of sound-pressure or voltage into decibels.

We have tried throughout to present a systematic and consistent picture of the auditory process, but we find we have had surprisingly little to say about theories of hearing. This omission is probably not so much symptomatic of a personal lack of interest in theories' as it is indicative of a state of development in the science. Theories flourish on a certain sparseness of facts and wither in the face of abundance. When all the relations are known, alternative theories are no longer possible, and, if a present inventory of the facts of audition leaves little room for theories of hearing--in the nineteenth-century meaning of the phrase--that situation must be accounted a sign of progress. Nevertheless, plenty of opportunity remains for the theorist in the possible interpretation of many individual items, and we have indulged in our share of speculation. Our interpretations now appear to us to be consistent with a place-theory that does not employ the principle of simple resonance. We did not begin with this type of theory in mind. The fact that a systematic survey of the field has altered our point of view seems to use to indicate that we were justified in our second reason for undertaking this task: the discovery of the extent to which the field of audition is able to yield a consistent point of view.

One more confession must be made, lest the reader look for what he will not find. Many of the topics of these eighteen chapters have histories which go back far beyond the last decade. To trace these histories adequately, however, would demand many more pages of text than good faith would allow us to impose upon the reader. Furthermore, almost all the early psychophysical measurements have recently been repeated under more favorable auspices of modern electrical techniques. Consequently, out of our list of references, consisting of about 330 titles, more than 280 bear a date more recent than the paper by Forbes, Miller and O'Connor, who, just ten years ago, first described synchronized nerve-impulses in the auditory pathways of the brain. Although we have made no attempt to assemble a complete bibliography, even of recent papers, the appended list of references should provide adequate leads for the student who wishes to pursue a topic to its roots.

Finally, in assembling this review, we have been impressed by the variety of sources from which the facts of hearing are derived. It is characteristic of the science of audition that is ignores the traditional boundaries between the sciences. None of the traditional disciplines nor any of the academic departments of the modern university can claim audition exclusively as its own. The mystery of the ear inspires the psychologist, the physiologist, the otologist, and the physicist alike. Hence, although much of the work recorded in these chapters has been carried out at Harvard University, it is significant that no single laboratory is exclusively responsible for it. There has been active collaboration between the authors, representing psychology and physiology, and members of the departments of otology and physics. Elsewhere the situation is similar. From the Laboratory of Psychology at Princeton University, from the Bell Telephone Laboratories, from the Animal Hearing Laboratory at the University of Illinois, from the Department of Physics in the University of Michigan, from the Department of Psychology at the State University of Iowa, from the Otological Research Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, from the Government Laboratories of Hungary, from the Telefunken Laboratories in the University of Cambridge, and from many other active laboratories, comes an impressive stream of new discoveries--a fact which means that this book is a current inventory and not a final summary.

The preparation of any manuscript is an arduous task, and authors universally feel indebted beyond expression to those whose helpfulness makes the task bearable. Dr. M.H. Lurie of the Department of Otology has not only collaborated in many of the experiments here recorded, but has kindly provided several photomicrographs of the inner ear. Professor E.G. Boring read a large part of the manuscript and saved it from many faults. Professor F.V. Hunt contributed valuable suggestions for the improvement of Chapter 1. Mr. A.H. Bernstone devoted much time and talent to the drawing of many of the illustrations. He also read the entire manuscript and contributed to its improvement. Dr. A.F. Rawdon-Smith ready the proof and suggested valuable modifications. Mr. Frank O'Neill's skill as a photographer has aided in the reproduction of many of the figures. Mrs. J.C. Leighton turned our battered first drafts into good copy for the printer, and her skill has been an invaluable asset. To all these friends we are grateful.

S. Smith Stevens
Hallowell Davis

Harvard University
December 28, 1937

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