Human hearing sensitivity is dependent on frequency, which can be visualized by equal-loudness (iso-loudness) contour plots. An example is given below (Taken from here).

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This plot shows that a tone with around a 4 kHz frequency (minima above) needs the least amount of actual energy in order to be percieved well as compared with a tone of any other frequency, while on the other hand it shows that tones of frequencies below 100 Hz and above 19 kHz need to have a lot of energy for us to percieve it.

My question is, how does one explain the clearly uniform/persistent fluctuations in these iso-loudness contours? Why are our ears most sensitive to 4 kHz tones, and why is there a "shoulder" in the contours at about 7 kHz? My first guess would be for proper perception of human speech - but the characteristic frequency of human speech is around 80 - 260 Hz!

EDIT: My question is similar to this previous question, but it is a bit different in detail (they are only concerned with the overall dip, whereas I'm concerned with the dip, the shoulder, etc.). Moreover, that question has no accepted answer.

  • $\begingroup$ Uhp,... my question may be a duplicate of biology.stackexchange.com/questions/26067/…. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2016 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ You started with an erroneous teleological argument: that the ear should hear best at the frequencies of the human voice. Teleological arguments are usually wrong. Who knows why the ear evolved this way? (Also note that it was very likely pre-human.) $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2016 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Christiaan - Your own answer (which is good, btw) demonstrates why this question is POB: "But this is entirely and purely speculative and remains an unreferenced statement for which I do not wish to be held repsonsible in any way." One can explain the mechanics, as you did, but the why cannot be explained except possibly by a forensic anthropologist. $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2016 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Christiaan - Speech recognition comes to mind to me, too, but in a slightly different way: I see hearing loss charts all the time (we do drivers' physicals in the oc med section) and am amused at the fact that men lose hearing in the higher frequency ranges of women's voices. :) Evolution? $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2016 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @anongoodnurse hahaha whoooo that's a really nice perspective to explain the evolutionary beneficial role of presbyacusis :-D The survival of men kind :-) $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Nov 16, 2016 at 22:05

1 Answer 1


The frequency-selectivity of loudness perception was first shown in the 1930s, when Fletcher and Munson published a set of curves showing the ear's sensitivity to loudness compared to frequency. These equal-loudness curves, as shown in the question above, are now known as Fletcher-Munson equal-loudness contours.

One straightforward physical explanation is the fact that sounds with frequencies around 4 kHz are amplified in the middle ear canal through the process of resonance. In effect, they are perceived 10 to 20 dB louder than other audible frequencies. The pinna also affect resonance and hence the outer and middle ear together join forces to create humps and bumps in the equal-loudness curves.

The evolutionary reason why 4 kHz, and not, e.g. 0.5 or 8 kHz, is difficult to pinpoint. First I can clarify some misconceptions in the question, before getting back to the question proper:

  • Firstly, you mention that the "characteristic frequency" of a human voice is between 80 and 250 Hz. You are referring to the fundamental frequency; the characteristic frequency is a measure used in electrophysiology to determine the frequency-specificity of inner-ear neural structures.
  • Secondly, the fundamental frequency does not determine the frequency-selectivity of speech understanding. A useful picture is given below in Fig. 1, which shows which frequencies convey which speech components.

Fig 1. Frequency dependence of speech components. source: The Essential Guide to Hearing Loss

It becomes apparent from Fig. 1 that consonants (f, s, h etc.) are higher pitched than vowels (a, o, u etc.). Arguably, consonants convey most of the word information. Indeed, speech understanding is generally less affected by removing the vowels than by removing the consonants. One may deduce from all this that high-frequency hearing (say 2 - 8 kHz) is most important to understanding speech.

And then, to get back to your evolutionary motivation behind the Fletcher-Munson equal-loudness contours, it may, purely hypothetically be so, that our ancestors with a middle-ear resonance around 4 kHz were advantaged over those that had resonances elsewhere in the audible frequency range, if any, because of an enhanced perception of the spoken word. But this is entirely and purely speculative and remains an unreferenced statement for which I do not wish to be held responsible in any way.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 - Really nice answer. A question, though (and I truly don't know the answer to this, whereas you might): do you think this frequency range evolved with language, or do you think it was there in primate ancestors? $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2016 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @anongoodnurse see Figure 5 here of the chimp audiogram compared to the human: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ar.a.20117/full Chimps appear to have a pronounced insensitivity where humans have their best hearing. This is also consistent across studies, albeit very low sample sizes: laboratoryofcomparativehearing.com/uploads/… $\endgroup$
    – Bzrs
    Dec 14, 2016 at 6:20

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