Hearing Blog
Directional hearing: where does sound come from

An introduction to Directional Hearing

Published 15-07-2019
Last Updated 18-07-2019

If you’re out for a walk and hear a bird singing, you would instinctively turn your head in the direction that the sound is coming from. But how do we know?

Written by Annie L. Messmer, Doctor of Audiology
Our brain and ears work together to give us the capacity for directional hearing, which just refers to the ability to distinguish which direction a sound is coming from in relation to something or someone.

Let’s go back to the walk in the woods example. Even if you close your eyes, you can probably still identify where the sound of the bird’s song is coming from. Sometimes, if the sound is clear enough, which direction the singing bird went as it flew away. This is because your two ears collect sound information from separate areas and then deliver it to your brain – and then your brain puts that information together and analyzes it to determine the location of the sound.

Two Things Help Locate Sound

Ear shape:

The shape of your pinna, or outer ear, naturally makes it easier for you to sort out sounds from different locations and directions.


Your brain is constantly processing information coming from your ears, measuring the strength of a sound, and well as its source and distance. Once your brain puts all this information together, it can determine the direction of the source of the sound.

This process of localizing sounds becomes difficult if there is a hearing loss in both ears and even more difficult if only one ear is able to collect information for the brain. Hearing in two ears, whether naturally or with hearing aids in both ears can help the wearer regain directional hearing.

The benefit of directional hearing aids

If an individual’s ability for sound localization has been diminished by a loss of hearing, directional hearing aids are an available solution. A very common misconception is that only one hearing aid will do the job, but this is very rarely the case. Wearing two hearing aids allows sound to be collected from both sides. This is also known as binaural hearing, which makes it easier for the brain to tell the wearer the direction from which a sound is coming. Any hearing loss – even hearing loss in just one ear – has an effect on binaural hearing.

A good example of this is a group conversation at a cocktail party, where multiple speakers talk at different times. In these situations, the direction sounds are coming from changes rapidly and repeatedly. When both ears are receiving information – whether naturally or with the help of hearing aids - it is much easier for the brain to determine where a sound is coming from.Some hearing aids have the ability to communicate between the ears, making it easier for the wearer to hear in noisy situations.

About the Author

Annie L. Messmer, Au.D.
Dr. Annie Messmer is a certified audiologist with a degree from Northwestern University and over 10 years of experience working with patients of all ages. She has also trained numerous hearing care professionals on audiology best practices and the latest hearing technology.