Hearing ability is essential to most animals, and humans are no different. Human hearing evolved to detect low and high-frequency sounds, with a particular sensitivity to frequencies crucial to speech recognition.
A person’s capacity to hear the full frequency range is a key indicator in hearing tests designed to diagnose hearing loss. This guide will tell you all about the human hearing range.
The Normal Human Hearing Range
Hearing range refers to the range of frequencies that the auditory system can detect, and it’s measured in hertz (Hz). The normal human hearing range is 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.
The human ear has a highly dynamic hearing range, but we are most sensitive to sounds between 500 Hz and 4,000 Hz.
Ultrasonic Sounds and Infrasounds
Sound beyond the lower end of the audible range of human hearing is called infrasound, while high-frequency sounds above 20,000 Hz are called ultrasonic sounds.
Human beings cannot hear these sounds, but other animals can. Dogs, cats, and dolphins can hear high-pitched sounds up to 160,000 Hz. That’s why your furry friend can hear a dog whistle, but you can’t.
The dynamic range of human hearing, expressed in decibels (dB), goes up to 130 dB. At the lowest end is audiometric zero or 0 dB.
Audiometric zero is the lowest intensity of human hearing ability. Anyone with normal hearing should be able to hear a pure tone sound at this level at least half the time across the full frequency range.
Prolonged exposure to volumes louder than 85 dB can damage the inner ear, causing hearing loss.
Group Differences in Hearing Range
The normal frequency range of human hearing varies across demographic categories.
The human hearing range gradually shrinks with age.
You first lose the ability to hear higher frequency sounds. As age-related hearing loss progresses, you start having trouble with low-frequency sounds, too.
Imperceptible changes in hearing start early in life. Laboratory testing has found that some children can hear sounds as high as 28,000 Hz, but the upper limit of hearing ability for most kids is typically 20,000 Hz.
The wider hearing range most young people enjoy starts to narrow in the teens.
Most people cannot hear tones higher than 17,400 Hz after 18, and your ability to detect higher frequencies than 15,000 Hz starts to diminish at 25.
Sex and Gender
While men and women have virtually identical auditory systems, there are significant differences in hearing ability due to social and environmental factors.
Women of all ages generally hear sounds higher than 2,000 Hz better than their male peers. However, older women are more prone to hearing loss at low frequencies than men.
One possible explanation is that men are more likely to work in jobs or have hobbies where they are exposed to loud sounds, while women are more likely to seek help for hearing loss.
Hearing Ranges and Diagnosing Hearing Loss
Diminished capacity to hear different frequencies is a critical indicator of hearing loss.
When you get a hearing test, an audiologist will evaluate your ability to hear a full range of frequencies played at various decibel levels. A standard hearing test covers a frequency range of 250 Hz to 8,000 Hz, corresponding roughly to the maximum range of human speech.
The audiologist will play pure sound waves at different frequencies and volumes to determine the lowest volume at which you can hear sounds in the same range. The tester creates a graph called an audiogram comprising a grid of frequencies and decibels.
The shape of the audiogram helps a hearing specialist determine the type and severity of hearing loss. Hearing loss in a given frequency range might provide clues about the underlying cause.
High-Frequency Hearing Loss
In many common kinds of progressive hearing loss, people first lose their ability to hear high frequencies.
Here are some typical examples of high-frequency hearing loss and their characteristics:
- Noise-induced hearing loss: Long-term exposure to loud noise damages the sensitive components of the inner ear called hair cells. Noise-induced hearing loss is easy to spot because it produces a noticeable drop at higher frequencies in the 3,000 Hz to 5000 Hz range, with a marked notch at 4,000 Hz.
- Age-related hearing loss: Some older people begin to gradually lose their ability to hear sounds higher than 2,000 Hz around 50 or 60 and have difficulty understanding certain speech sounds.
- High-frequency conductive hearing loss: Chronicmiddle ear infections and defects of the middle ear bones may cause high-frequency hearing loss.
Low-Frequency Hearing Loss
People primarily suffer hearing loss in the higher frequencies, but some rare conditions restrict the audible frequencies on the lower end.
While this type of hearing loss is less likely to affect your ability to have a normal conversation or interpret speech sounds, it might noticeably alter your sound perception. It impedes your capacity to hear some low-frequency sounds, like a plane flying overhead or an appliance humming.
Low-frequency sensorineural hearing loss occurs when there is damage to the hair cells inside the inner ear or the auditory nerve. Some common causes of low-frequency sensorineural hearing loss include:
- Meniere’s disease
- Genetic mutations like Wolfram’s syndrome
- Viral infections like Ramsay Hunt syndrome
- Low cerebrospinal fluid
Low-frequency conductive hearing loss is caused by middle or outer ear problems. Some causes include:
- A buildup of fluid due to a middle ear infection
- Malformation or hardening of the bones in the middle ear
If you have normal hearing and want to keep it that way, you can take a few simple measures to prevent hearing loss.
Minimize Noise Exposure
- Avoid loud and constant noise. If you must be around loud sounds because of your job or other obligations, wear noise-canceling ear muffs or earplugs.
- Adopt healthy practices for listening to music. Only listen to headphones and earbuds at 60 percent volume for no more than 60 minutes at a time.
Avoid Substances That Harm Your Ears
- If you are experiencing acute hearing loss or tinnitus, you may be taking one of the more than 700 medications that can harm the ear. Speak to your doctor about alternatives.
- Protect your ears and adequately ventilate your workspace when dealing with paint thinners, solvents and other chemicals that can damage the human ear.
Take Care of Your Health
- Treat all infections, particularly those that affect the ear canal or inner ear. When left untreated, they could damage the ear.
- Effectively manage chronic conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, and thyroid problems that affect the ear.
The human hearing range varies with age and hearing health. While children can generally hear frequencies up to 20,000 Hz, normal hearing for adults over 18 tops out at around 17,400 Hz. A hearing test can determine if your hearing falls within the normal human range. If you have moderate or mild hearing loss, hearing aids will help.
1. Wiley TL, Chappell R, Carmichael L, Nondahl DM, Cruickshanks KJ. Changes in hearing thresholds over 10 years in older adults. J Am Acad Audiol. 2008;19(4):281-371. doi:10.3766/jaaa.19.4.2