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I noticed that every time I suffer temporary tinnitus after going to a very loud concert, the frequency I perceive is identical. I'd put it somewhere around 17 kHz, but it's difficult to pin down with any real accuracy due to the dulling effect it has on external sound sources.

Is this frequency constant across all humans? If not, what determines the frequency? Note that I'm only interested in tinnitus caused by exposure to loud sounds, not other types of tinnitus such as idiopathic tinnitus or tinnitus caused as a side-effect of medication.

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This question has been asked (and answered) on CogSci.SE as well: What's the Frequency of the ringing in my ear? – Jeff Mar 12 '13 at 8:28
@Jeff Interesting, but rather indigestible and verbose. Would be nice to get an answer that explains things in simpler terms. – Polynomial Mar 12 '13 at 20:27
Is this frequency constant across all humans? No. If not what determines the frequency? In part, experience. You may consider leafing through some of the references if you find the answer insufficient. – Jeff Mar 12 '13 at 21:31

1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Short answer
Perceived tinnitus pitch tends to resemble the frequency content of the loud sound that induced the tinnitus.

Solid, laboratory-controlled studies to the perceived pitch of temporary, noise-induced tinnitus ("ringing in the ears") are ethically questionable, because researchers have to deliberately expose study subjects to potentially damaging loud sounds. Therefore, data on temporary noise-induced tinnitus are scarce and confined to a small handful of studies done in the 1960's (Henry & Meikle, 2000).

In one of these studies (Atherly et al., 1968) the authors exposed the study subjects to loud acoustic stimuli of various pure tones. The subjects reported to experience tinnitus pitched within a certain frequency band around the tonal stimuli received. The stimulus frequency and perceived pitch approached a 1:1 relationship, such that the tinnitus pitch was e.g. 4 kHz when the noise frequency was 4 kHz. Between-subject variability was, however, considerable. For example, at a stimulus of 6 kHz, the range of perceived pitch was 4-9 kHz.

The other study I found based on the review by Henry & Meikle (2000) showed that the perceived tinnitus pitch increased when the frequency of the loud tonal stimulus or frequency content of broadband noise increased (Loeb & Smith, 1967). Basically this confirms the data from Atherly et al. (1968). However, the perceived pitch did not coincide with the stimulus frequencies, and there was considerable variability between subjects. For example, some subjects reported multiple frequencies in their tinnitus, some reported a hissing tinnitus, while others did not develop any tinnitus at all (Loeb & Smith, 1967).

In all, your suggested perceived tinnitus pitch of 17 kHz is unexpected, given that noise-induced hearing loss (by loud music exposure etc.) typically results in a 4-kHz notch in the audiogram where hearing loss is greatest. Hence, tinnitus would be expected to occur around this frequency as well. But again, variability is very high and it may well be possible it is higher pitched in your case. Also note that 17 kHz is very high and near the upper audible frequency limit for humans (e.g., the sound an old CRT screen makes, i.e., hardly perceivable for many adults).

Most research on tinnitus has been done regarding patients with chronic tinnitus complaints that suffer from sensorineural hearing loss (i.e., damage to the hair cells in the cochlea). Typically, the perceived tinnitus pitch in this group is associated with their hearing loss. In other words, the pitch of the tinnitus generally matches a frequency range within the region of frequency loss (Eggermont & Roberts, 2004).

Atherly et al., JASA 1968;44:1503-6
Eggermont & Roberts, Trends Neurosci 2004;27:676-82
Henry & Meikle, J Am Acad Audiol 2000;11:138-55
Loeb & Smith, JASA 1967;42:453-5

Further reading
What's the Frequency of the ringing in my ear?
Can humans perceive sounds above 20 kHz?

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Fantastic answer. Well sourced, too. I had all but forgotten about this question, so I'm glad you happened upon it. Regarding the 17kHz figure, I just ran a few pure tones (sine, saw) through my headphones and would say 14-15kHz is a more accurate ballpark. – Polynomial Mar 19 at 11:43
@Polynomial - I never expected this late answer to be accepted :D Thanks :) 14-15 kHz sounds more plausible, but still very high. But possible, given the variability. It is a high pitched peep? – AliceD Mar 19 at 11:46
Given your comment as to why you asked this question - I am a bit afraid it is even more verbose than the related one at CogSci :) But I hope the 'Short answer' solved this somewhat – AliceD Mar 19 at 11:48
It's much more readable as prose, in my opinion. The other answer just seemed to be some snippets without context. And yes, the sound is very high, like a high-pitch squeal. I'm lucky enough to have retained my auditory sensitivity up to about 18kHz, despite the damage I've no doubt done at concerts, which may explain why I experience a higher pitch squeak. – Polynomial Mar 19 at 11:52
Sounds all very reasonable, although noise-induced hearing loss typically results in a 4-kHz notch, well below the high frequencies. – AliceD Mar 19 at 11:53

protected by Chris Apr 30 at 16:09

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