Loudness perception

40 Pressure amplitude

Pressure differences and human hearing

The human brain forms an impression of loudness based on the properties of the vibrations that enter the ear. You might figure that amplitude of the vibration at the eardrum is the dominant factor for our perception of loudness, and you’d be basically correct. Our brains generally associate bigger vibrations with “louder” sounds.

Human ears work by detecting the tiny pressure difference between compressions and rarefactions in a sound wave. The size of these pressure variations is called pressure amplitude. In general, the larger the pressure amplitude a sound has, the louder it seems. These pressure changes are tiny compared to atmospheric pressure, even for extremely loud sounds. Sounds loud enough to damage human ears (e.g. a jet plane at 30 yards) have pressure variations of just a few hundred Pascals- that’s less than one hundredth of atmospheric pressure (which is roughly 100,000 Pa). The quietest sounds humans can detect have pressure amplitudes of about – roughly one billionth of atmospheric pressure.

Pressure amplitudes in sound are small (compared to atmospheric pressure), but they span an incredibly wide range- sounds loud enough to damage the ear have pressure amplitudes roughly a million times larger than the quietest sounds we can hear! See the table later in this section to see the incredibly wide range of pressure amplitudes involved in everyday sounds.

This wide dynamic range is generally a “good thing”- it’s why we can hear both mosquitoes and jet planes. However, there is at least one drawback: we have difficulty noticing differences in amplitudes- two jet planes simply don’t sound that much louder than one.

Stop to think 1

a) Does it make sense to say that one sound is twice as loud as another?

b) Does it make sense to say that the pressure amplitude of one sound is twice as big as another?


Sound pressure: a confusing phrase

Authors often use the words sound pressure when they actually mean pressure amplitude. Because so many books (including this one!) use this horrible phrase, you should be aware of the term and its usual meaning: sound pressure means pressure amplitude.

Don’t confuse sound pressure with air pressure- they are not the same thing! The phrase “sound pressure of 1 Pa” seems like it describes a sound that has air pressure with a steady value of 1 Pa- nothing could be further from the truth! The air pressure in the room with that sound is neither steady, nor anywhere near 1 Pa.  The average air pressure in any sound wave (in air) is typically close to 101,300 Pa (i.e. atmospheric pressure). What “sound pressure of 1 Pa” means is that the air pressure in the sound wave varies, but remains within 1 Pa of atmospheric pressure.

Stop to think 2

You’re at the game inside a loud arena where the sound pressure is 20 Pa on a day when atmospheric pressure is 101,300 Pa. What’s the air pressure inside your ear?


Sound Pressure Level

Sound level meters generally work by measuring pressure amplitude (aka sound pressure) with a microphone. Because the numbers for sound pressure span such a wide range, sound level meters display sound pressure level (SPL), instead of sound pressure (aka pressure amplitude). Sound pressure level is a number based directly on pressure amplitude, expressed in decibels (dB). The table below compares sound pressures and sound pressure levels for some everyday sounds.

Sound Pressure amplitude (in μPa)

Sound Pressure Level (in dB)

 Hearing threshold  20 0
 Rice krispies  600 30
 Conversation  20,000 60
 Leaf blower  600,000 90
 Loud indoor arena  20,000,000 120

The decibel scale basically transforms sound pressure numbers into a much more human-friendly format using the math of logarithms.

Stop to think: Answers

  1. a) No. Loudness is a perception, formed within the listener’s brain- there’s no way to affix a number to it. b) Yes. Pressure amplitude is a physical property of a wave. It can be measured and quantified.
  2. At any given moment, the air pressure in your ear could be  any value between 101,280 Pa and 101,320 Pa. The air pressure in your ear is constantly changing, but it’s always within 20 Pa of atmospheric pressure for this sound.




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Understanding Sound by abbottds is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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