Hearing Sciences
A young person undertaking a hearing test using headphones at a computer

Making sense of what we hear

We know how sound travels through the air, through the different parts of the ear and into the brain as electrical signals. But that is not the end of the story! The brain needs to take those signals and turn them into something meaningful for us.


Sound, emotion and memory

Our brain can store records of the information it receives for future use. We call this memory. It’s how you can hear a voice and know that it is someone you know, or how you know a song when you hear it. It is also the reason that we might hear a dog barking and get scared or hear someone singing happy birthday and feel good.

The way we react to sounds and the emotions we feel depends on our previous experiences. If you have a very good experience the first time you listen to a song, then it is more likely that hearing that song again will make you feel good. This also goes for animals.

A dog on a rainbow-coloured pavement

A very famous scientist called Ivan Pavlov researched something called classical conditioning. Every time he fed his dogs, he would ring a bell. Then over time the dogs started to associate the sound of the bell with food. This meant that Pavlov could ring the bell and the dogs would feel hungry and start drooling even when there was no food!

Sometimes the emotions that sounds make us feel can be strong enough to cause our body to react.

Exercise: Sound on! Listen to the sounds and see how each makes you feel

YouTube link (for those who need subtitles, captions etc.)


Sounds that make us feel suspense can even sometimes cause our bodies  to start sweating or want to leave. Listening to soft music can make our bodies feel relaxed and sleepy. Upbeat, happy music can make us feel energetic and want to dance!

YouTube link

How do we know where sounds are coming from


Exercise: Close your eyes and get another person to move around the room and then speak. Without opening your eyes, try and point to where they are.



We are usually pretty good at being able to tell where sounds are coming from. The brain can take the information coming from the ears and do very clever calculations to work out where a sound is coming from.

Imagine a sound is coming from the right-hand side of where you are. Because our ears are spaced apart on the sides of our heads, the sound would reach our right ear before it reaches our left. Also, the further a sound travels, the quieter it gets. This means that the sound from our right ear would reach the brain quicker than the sound from our left ear, and it would also be slightly louder. Our brain uses these tiny differences to tell us where the sound is coming from.

What happens when we listen to music

Playing music involves our whole brains, and when we practice we build more and more connections between different parts of our brain. The ability to play music affects the way we listen to music as well - if you can play the piano and you listen to a song with a piano in it, you actually use your brain as if you’re playing yourself!

Try listening to a song and pretending to play along!

YouTube link


But why do we have such strong feelings when we listen to music? Well, one important element is the beat – even babies understand rhythm, and wiggle in time to simple songs. The fact that we’re built to understand the key elements of music, and that all different cultures across the world include music, suggests that music is really important, possibly as a way of expressing emotion or a way of bonding with the people you’re dancing with.

YouTube link

Our senses mix in the brain

Our brain takes in all the information we receive and uses that the tell us what is happening. The sounds that we hear and the images that we see are both linked.

A baby wearing a white longsleeved outfit crying, lying on a white surface

A baby wearing a white and patterned babygrow playing with toys, laughing

Exercise: Sound on! Look at the first picture and play the sound. What do you hear? Now look at the second picture and play the sound. What do you hear?

It is not just our vision which alters what we hear. What we are doing or thinking about at the time can change how we perceive sounds.

Exercise: Sound on! Listen to the video in the link and see what you can hear

 YouTube link


In the clip above, what we hear depends on what we are thinking about at the time. If you think the word “brainstorm” or “green needle” then that is what you hear. This is because the brain takes in quite a tricky sound which is not very clear and tries to make sense of it.

Learn more about hearing



Hearing Sciences

Division of Clinical Neuroscience
School of Medicine
University of Nottingham
Medical School, QMC
Nottingham, NG7 2UH

telephone: University Park +44 (0) 115 74 86900
Ropewalk House +44 (0) 115 82 32600
Glasgow +44 (0) 141 242 9665 email:hearing-research@nottingham.ac.uk