It’s pretty easy to see the impact of vision on our lives. It would be hard to go a day without interacting with someone wearing glasses or contact lenses. Yet when was the last time you met someone with noticeably impaired hearing?
Even if you have perfect 20/20 sight, you may have undergone a vision test at some point in your life. Most people have at least a vague idea of how good their vision is, but can you say with any certainty what your hearing range is?
If not, don’t be surprised. Very few Americans would be able to say that they’ve had a hearing test. An estimated 35 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, and only 28.5 percent of them use hearing aids. Approximately 25 million Americans with hearing loss do not use a hearing aid, and a large percentage of them would never have bothered with a hearing test.
Hearing range defined
Most eye tests measure how far you can see, so hearing tests would probably be about how close a noise has to be for you to hear it right? Kind of, but not really. When people use the term “hearing range,” also known as “dynamic hearing range,” they’re talking about the spectrum of sound between the absolute softest sound you can hear and the absolute loudest sound you can tolerate.
The science bit
While it may not be the most engaging part of the article, any hearing range discussion worth its salt would have to dive into the science behind hearing ranges. As you may know, sound volume is measured in decibels. The normal hearing threshold (how loud a sound needs to be for someone to hear it) is between 0-20 dB, whereas the average discomfort levels are 90+.
To give these numbers some meaning, 20 dB is the sound of leaves rustling, 85 dB is the sound of loud traffic, and 180 dB is the sound of a rocket launch.
Let’s say your hearing threshold is 10 dB, and your discomfort level is 90 dB. The difference between these numbers is 80, which would make your dynamic range 80 dB.
But I thought hearing range was…
Maybe you’ve read up until this point and been confused about why we’re talking about volume. In everyday vernacular, hearing range usually refers to the frequency of a sound- how high or low pitched sounds may be. But really, hearing range is a combination of volume and frequencies.
Sound comes in a dizzying amount of frequencies, all of which may or may not be audible to certain people. Frequencies and volume are to the ear as colors and definition are to the eye. And much like some people have trouble distinguishing colors, some people are unable to hear certain frequencies.
When you combine audible volumes and frequencies, you get a graph that depicts the average human auditory field.
What can affect a person’s hearing range?
Some people are taller than others, some people have blue eyes, and some people have a wider hearing range. Like anything to do with the human body, natural variation means that an individual’s hearing range is unique. Then of course, as hearing degrades, a person’s hearing range may diminish and change as they age.
Beyond this, there are other conditions that may lead to a significantly different hearing range. Firstly, we have a condition called “recruitment.” This condition is often paired with damage to the cochlea, a component of the inner ear.
When one of the hair cells in the ear canal dies, the cell “recruits” neighboring cells to take over. This neighboring cell is now responsible for not just the frequency it originally picked up, but also for the frequency that the damaged cell was responsible for.
This means that, while it will take a louder sound to break the individual’s hearing threshold, once a sound does break through, it will be louder than normal and might shock or disturb the listener.
Secondly, we have hyperacusis. While recruiting generally happens with age, due to the hair cells being damaged, hyperacusis can affect anyone of any age. It is identified as hypersensitivity to certain kinds of noise, whether that noise is a knife scraping across a plate or fireworks. There is still no firm understanding of the cause behind this condition.
So what’s my hearing range?
That is a good thing to be asking. As far as frequency goes, you can find a multitude of online tests to find your hearing frequency range. Testing volume, however, is a bit more complex. There’s no surefire way to test volume online, as speaker and headphone volumes vary so much.