Hearing at Low and Infrasonic Frequencies
H. Møller and C. S. Pedersen
Department of Acoustics, Aalborg University
The human perception of sound at frequencies below 200 Hz is reviewed. Knowledge about our
perception of this frequency range is important, since much of the sound we are exposed to in
our everyday environment contains significant energy in this range. Sound at 20-200 Hz is
called low-frequency sound, while for sound below 20 Hz the term infrasound is used. The
hearing becomes gradually less sensitive for decreasing frequency, but despite the general
understanding that infrasound is inaudible, humans can perceive infrasound, if the level is
sufficiently high. The ear is the primary organ for sensing infrasound, but at levels somewhat
above the hearing threshold it is possible to feel vibrations in various parts of the body. The
threshold of hearing is standardized for frequencies down to 20 Hz, but there is a reasonably
good agreement between investigations below this frequency. It is not only the sensitivity but
also the perceived character of a sound that changes with decreasing frequency. Pure tones
become gradually less continuous, the tonal sensation ceases around 20 Hz, and below 10 Hz it
is possible to perceive the single cycles of the sound. A sensation of pressure at the eardrums
also occurs. The dynamic range of the auditory system decreases with decreasing frequency.
This compression can be seen in the equal-loudness-level contours, and it implies that a slight
increase in level can change the perceived loudness from barely audible to loud. Combined
with the natural spread in thresholds, it may have the effect that a sound, which is inaudible
to some people, may be loud to others. Some investigations give evidence of persons with an
extraordinary sensitivity in the low and infrasonic frequency range, but further research is
needed in order to confirm and explain this phenomenon.
Keywords: low-frequency sound, infrasound, hearing thresholds, equal-loudness-level contours,
binaural advantage, sensitive persons
It is traditionally said that the human hearing
covers a certain frequency range, called the
audible range or the audio frequency range. The
lower limit of this range is usually given as 16 or
20 Hz, and the upper limit is typically said to be
16 or 20 kHz.
The upper limit is fairly sharp in the sense that
the hearing threshold rises rather steeply above
the upper limit - meaning that the hearing almost
“stops” at this frequency. The lower limit is more
smooth, and the hearing threshold follows a
curve that gradually goes to higher levels for
decreasing frequency. As a surprise to most
people (even to many acousticians), the
threshold curve continues below 20 and even 16
Hz, and - as it will be seen in the following
sections - humans can perceive sound at least
down to a few Hertz. This applies to all humans
with a normal hearing organ, and not just to a
Since the threshold curve goes up for decreasing
frequency, it reaches quite high sound pressure
levels at the lowest frequencies. Even when
rather high sound pressure levels are needed to
cause a perception, there are many sources in our
everyday environment that do produce audible
sound in this frequency range. Engines,
compressors, ventilation systems, traffic and
musical instruments are examples of man-made
sources, but also natural sources exist like
thunder, ocean waves and earthquakes. Driving a
car at highway-speed with an open window is a
situation, where many people expose themselves
to perceivable levels of 10-20 Hz sound.
The ear is most sensitive in the frequency range
Noise & Health 2004, 6;23, 37-57
from 200-300 Hz to around 10 kHz, and this is
the frequency range we mainly use in
communication. As a natural consequence it is
also the frequency range, where most hearing
research has been made. However, it is important
to have insight in the hearing function also
outside this frequency range, in particular at
frequencies below, since much of the sound that
we are exposed to in our everyday environment
contains significant energy in this range. The
present article gives a review of studies of the
hearing function below 200 Hz, focussing on the
hearing threshold and the loudness function.
Sound with frequencies below 20 Hz is called
infrasound, infra being Latin and meaning
below. Thus the term refers to the widespread
understanding that these frequencies are below
the range of (audible) “sound”. As mentioned,
this understanding is wrong, and the use of the
term infrasound for these frequencies has
resulted in many misunderstandings.
Nevertheless, the term is widely used, and it will
also be used in this article. For sound in the
frequency range 20-200 Hz, the term low-
frequency sound is used. Since there is no sharp
change in hearing at 20 Hz, the dividing into
infrasound and low-frequency sound should only
be considered as practical and conventional.
Sensation of sound at low and infrasonic
Everyone knows from his everyday environment
the feeling of hearing sound at low and
infrasonic frequencies. The following are
examples of typical low-frequency sound
sources: ventilation systems, compressors, idling
trucks and the neighbour’s stereo. Infrasound at
an audible level is usually found on the car deck
of a ferry and when driving a car with an open
window. However, infrasound is most often
accompanied by sound at other frequencies, so
the experience of listening to pure infrasound is
The subjective quality of the sound varies with
frequency. In the low-frequency range pure tones
still result in a tonal sensation, and - like at
higher frequencies - a sensation of pitch is
connected to the sensation. If the frequency is
gradually lowered from 20 Hz, the tonal
sensation disappears, the sound becomes
discontinuous in character and it changes into a
sensation of pressure at the eardrums. At even
lower frequencies it turns into a sensation of
discontinuous, separate puffs, and it is possible
to follow and count the single cycles of the tone.
Some early descriptions of these phenomena
were given by Brecher (1934) and by Wever and
Bray (1936). However, the lower limit of
tonality has been known much longer, e.g. it has
influenced the building of musical instruments,
where the largest organ pipes are tuned to a
frequency around 17 Hz.
Yeowart et al. (1967) described pure tones above
20 Hz as smooth and tonal, at 5-15 Hz a rough
sound with a popping effect was reported, and
tones below 5 Hz were described as chugging
and whooshing. Below 5 Hz a sensation like
“motion of tympanic membrane itself” was
reported. The perception of noise bands was
investigated by Yeowart et al. (1969). For an
octave band around 125 Hz the random noise
was perceived as banded noise, while at 63 Hz
the character changed into a sensation of a
fluctuating tone. The octave bands around 32 Hz
and 16 Hz were described as traffic rumble, at 16
Hz with a fluctuating flutter, while the band at 8
Hz was described as a rough peaky tone. For the
octave-band noise around 4 Hz separate random
peaks were perceived.
The early qualitative descriptions are well in line
with later descriptions in the literature as well as
with reports from numerous experimental
subjects in the authors’ laboratory and with the
authors’ experience from exposure of
It is mentioned by many authors and easily
verified in a laboratory with suitable equipment
that the loudness of low-frequency and
infrasonic sound grows considerably faster
above threshold than sound at higher
frequencies. Yeowart et al. (1967) mentioned
that at 4 Hz a 1 dB change in level was sufficient
to cover the whole range from inaudible to
definitely detectable. The faster growth of
loudness is reflected in the equal-loudness-level
contours, where the distance between the curves
decreases with decreasing frequency (see
separate section ‘Studies of equal-loudness-level
contours’). An implication of this compression is
that if a low-frequency sound is just audible,
then a relatively small increase in level will
result in a much louder sound.
The sensation mechanism
It has been a matter of interest, how we sense the
lowest frequencies, and the key question is, if we
sense them with our ears and in the same way as
we sense higher frequencies.
There is no doubt that the ear is the organ that is
most sensitive to sound at these frequencies. This
is seen from the fact that hearing thresholds are
the same, whether the whole body or only the
ears are exposed (see the section ‘Do we sense
with our ears’). It is more difficult to determine
whether the sensory pathway belongs to the
auditory system or not. Békésy (1936) noted that
it is difficult to distinguish whether the sensation
is of a pressure or tactile nature, or of an auditory
nature. He argued, though, that touching two
symmetrical places on for example the entrance
to the external meatus results in two separate
sensations, while binaural exposure to
infrasound fuses into a single impression
localized in the middle of the head. Therefore he
concluded that it is in fact an auditory sensation.
However, he also observed that at higher sound
pressure levels the auditory sensation is
accompanied by a “true” sensation of touch at
each of the ears. If the level of the sound is
increased even further, a sense of tickling or
prickling is observed. That the sensation at low
levels is auditory is further supported by the fact
that perception thresholds for deaf people are
much higher than for people with normal hearing
(see section ‘Non-auditory perception’).
It seems fair to conclude that the sense of hearing
is the primary sense for detecting sound at low
and infrasonic frequencies. However, it has often
been proposed that we do not sense infrasound
directly, but that we simply hear higher
harmonics produced by distortion in the middle
and the inner ear (see e.g. Johnson (1980)). If
this were true, it would then be reasonable to
assume that the subjective quality of a 15-Hz
tone would be comparable to that of a tone or a
combination of tones at higher harmonics like 30
and 45 Hz. However, to the authors’ knowledge
such similarity has not been reported, and in an
informal listening test with the authors and
colleagues as listeners, such sounds were
perceived as clearly different in timbre, pitch and
general quality. Thus, the theory is not
Modulation of hearing
One way in which the presence of infrasonic
sound can be detected at levels around or
possibly below the hearing threshold is by
modulation of higher frequencies. The
infrasound moves the eardrum and the middle
ear bones, and the displacement may be so large
that their mechanical properties and the
transmission change. As a consequence, sounds
at higher frequencies are amplitude-modulated
with the infrasound. This effect is easily
demonstrated in a suitable laboratory, and it
emphasises the need of very quiet conditions,
when perception of infrasound is studied.
Another modulation effect is sometimes
mentioned in connection with infrasound,
namely modulation of speech. Whereas the
effect mentioned in the previous paragraph
relates to a person as a sound detector, this effect
relates to a person’s generation of sound. When a
person speaks in the presence of infrasound, the
pressure from the infrasound may create a small
pulsating airflow in the throat. This flow adds to
the natural flow from breathing and speaking,
and it modulates the speech. The effect is only
noticed at high levels of infrasound.
Studies of hearing threshold
The threshold is most likely the single
characteristic of the hearing that is investigated
most and best known. However, it is not trivial to
produce a well-controlled exposure at low
frequencies, and many original investigations
have a bad coverage of this frequency region.
The number of investigations in the infrasonic
region is even more limited.
Thresholds are usually given in terms of the
pressure of a free plane wave, in which the
listener is exposed horizontally and from the
front. The pressure is measured without the
listener being present in the sound field. A
threshold given this way is called the minimum
audible field, or the MAF. Another possibility is
to specify the threshold in terms of the actual
pressure at the eardrum during exposure - in
principle without specific requirements to the
nature of the sound field. This is called the
minimum audible pressure, or the MAP.
At high frequencies the presence or absence of a
person has a substantial impact on the sound
field, and there is a significant difference
between the MAF and the MAP. Furthermore,
the difference depends on the nature of the sound
field (e.g. free or diffuse), direction to sound
source(s) etc. At low frequencies, however, the
listener’s head and body have little or no impact
on a free plane wave, and it is expected that
MAP and MAF will have the same value.
Measurements of MAP may in principle be
carried out in any sound field. However, they are
usually done either in a pressure-field chamber
that encloses the entire body of the listener, or
with the sound created in a cavity that is coupled
to the ear (or to both ears). If, in the latter case,
the cavity is very small, e.g. like that of a supra-
aural audiometric earphone, physiological
activity around the ear seems to result in noise
under the earphone that elevates the threshold, in
particular at low frequencies (see e.g. Anderson
and Whittle (1971)). Therefore MAP
measurements with sound applied in very small
volumes have not been included in the
Sivian and White (1933) gave a review of earlier
studies of hearing thresholds. These
investigations differ much in means of exposure
and calibration as well as experimental method,
and they are now mainly of historical interest.
Nevertheless it is interesting to see how close the
results of at least some of these studies are to
threshold data obtained in more recent years.
These early studies will not be further reported
Common to all studies mentioned in the
following is that they have been made with
sinusoidal tones, and that the duration of the
tones has been so long that the temporal
integration of the ear is expected not to have any
impact on the result (usually a duration of 0.5-2
s or longer).
Most studies have been made in a free or an
approximately free sound field (e.g. an anechoic
room) using an electrodynamic transducer
(usually a loudspeaker) as sound source. Data
obtained under such conditions have been
presented by Sivian and White (1933) (100 Hz-
15 kHz, 14 subjects monaural, five subjects
binaural), Fletcher and Munson (1933) (60 Hz-
15 kHz, 11 subjects), Churcher et al. (1934) (100
Hz-6.4 kHz, 48 subjects), Churcher and King
(1937) (54 Hz-6.4 kHz, 10 subjects), Robinson
and Dadson (1956) (25 Hz-15 kHz, up to 120
subjects depending on frequency, lowest
frequencies measured in a duct), Teranishi
(1965) (63 Hz-10 kHz, 51 subjects), Anderson
and Whittle (1971) (50-1000 Hz, ten subjects),
Brinkmann (1973) (63 Hz-8 kHz, up to 58
subjects depending on frequency), Betke and
Mellert (1989) (40 Hz-15 kHz, up to 44 subjects
depending on frequency) (reported in more detail
by Betke (1991)), Fastl et al. (1990) (100-1000
Hz, 12 subjects), Watanabe and Møller (1990a)
(25-1000 Hz, 12 subjects), Takeshima et al.
(1994) (31.5 Hz-20 kHz, below 1 kHz: 17-69
subjects depending on frequency) (partly
reported on earlier occasions, e.g. by Suzuki et
al. (1989)), Lydolf and Møller (1997) (50 Hz-8
kHz, 27 subjects), Poulsen and Han (2000) (125
Hz-16 kHz, 31 subjects) and Takeshima et al.
(2001) (31.5 Hz-16 kHz, below 1 kHz: seven to
eight subjects). Most likely the study by
Bellmann et al. (1999) (40-160 Hz, 12 subjects)
was also carried out in a free-field, although it
was not specifically reported.
Especially at the lowest frequencies it is difficult
to produce sufficiently high sound pressure
levels in a free field, and the walls of even the
best anechoic room become reflective. As a
consequence no free-field data were reported
below 25 Hz, and most investigations did not
even go down as far as that.
Some investigators have produced the sound in a
pressure chamber connected to the outer ear(s)
either directly or by means of tubes. Data
obtained under such conditions have been
reported by Brecher (1934) (6.7-15.1 Hz, one
subject, monaural), Békésy (1936) (4.5-61 Hz,
one subject, monaural), Corso (1958) (5-200 Hz,
15 subjects), Finck (1961) (25-50 Hz, five
subjects, binaural), Yeowart et al. (1967) (1.5-
100 Hz, six to ten subjects depending on
frequency, monaural) and Yeowart and Evans
(1974) (5-100 Hz, five subjects, binaural). In the
study by Brecher (1934) the sound was
generated by a membrane driven by an eccentric
wheel. Unlike other investigators, Brecher kept
the level constant and varied the frequency to
obtain the threshold. Békésy (1936) excited the
pressure chamber by either a thermophone or a
pistonphone. (A thermophone uses an amplitude-
modulated alternating current to produce
temperature variations in a conducting wire or
foil. The surrounding air expands and contracts
with the modulation, thereby creating pressure
variations at the modulation frequency). The
later studies used electrodynamic transducers to
generate the sound.
Another group of studies used a larger pressure-
field chamber that covered the entire body of the
subjects. This applies to studies by Whittle et al.
(1972) (3.15-50 Hz, up to 58 subjects depending
on frequency), Yeowart and Evans (1974) (2-20
Hz, 12 subjects), Okai et al. (1980) (8-50 Hz, 28
subjects), Yamada et al. (1980) (8-63 Hz, 24
subjects), Nagai et al. (1982) (2-40 Hz, 62
subjects), Landström et al. (1983) (4-25 Hz, ten
subjects), Watanabe and Møller (1990b) (4-125
Hz, 12 subjects), Watanabe et al. (1993) (5-40
Hz, 20 subjects) and Lydolf and Møller (1997)
(20-100 Hz, 14 subjects plus nine added after
publication). All studies made in whole-body
pressure-field chambers used electrodynamic
loudspeakers to generate the sound. Most studies
had the loudspeakers mounted directly in the
chamber, while in two (Whittle et al. (1972) and
Yamada et al. (1980)) the sound was generated in
one box that was connected to the exposure
chamber by a tube. The two-box construction
was used to reduce high-frequency noise from
the amplifier by acoustic filtering. The exposure
chamber used by Landström et al. (1983) had an
opening to the outside, thereby forming a
Helmholtz resonator that was tuned to the
Figures 1-3 show all the thresholds that have
been reported above. Although mainly
frequencies below 200 Hz are considered in the
present article, data up to 1 kHz are shown.
Monaural and binaural data are shown as
observed (i.e. with no correction), no distinction
is made between data for men and women, and
no distinction is made between MAF and MAP.
For studies that have reported data for different
Figure 1. Low-frequency hearing
thresholds measured in the period
from 1933 to 1967.
age groups, the youngest group is shown
(Teranishi et al. (1965), Whittle et al. (1972)).
It is obvious from Figures 1-3 that differences
between investigations exist. However, one
should have in mind that the data are obtained in
a period of 70 years with very different
techniques. Not surprisingly the largest
discrepancies are found in the low and infrasonic
frequency region, because it is much more
difficult to produce the stimuli needed for this
region. The demand on higher sound pressure
levels with less harmonic distortion (due to the
steep slope of the threshold curve) are difficult to
meet as the production of higher sound pressure
levels usually causes more harmonic distortion.
Other differences between investigations can be
found, e.g. in background noise level, sound
field, subjects (number, age, selection process),
psychometric method, instruction of the
subjects, whether mean or median threshold is
reported, and number of repetitions.
The differences between the investigations are so
large that comparisons across investigations of
the results cannot give answers to questions like
Figure 2. Low-frequency hearing
thresholds measured in the period
from 1971 to 1983.
Figure 3. Low-frequency hearing
thresholds measured in the period
from 1989 to 2001.
the effect of gender, effect of age, monaural
versus binaural exposure, effect of sound-field,
and differences between persons. Therefore the
following sections will deal with single
investigations that focus on these specific issues.
Significance of gender
Most investigations have included both male and
female subjects. Robinson and Dadson (1956)
noted that there was no systematic difference
between thresholds of men and women, but they
did not show data separately for the two genders.
Only Yamada et al. (1980) reported data
separately. Figure 4 shows their data for the two
genders. Women seem to be around 3 dB more
sensitive than men except at 8 and 10 Hz, where
men are around 2dB more sensitive. The
standard deviation between subjects is not
specified, so a statistical test cannot be
performed on these data. However, large
differences between persons are mentioned in
the study, and when the relatively low number of
subjects (16 men and eight women) is recalled, it
is most likely that the differences between
genders are not statistically significant.
Significance of age
Several investigations have studied thresholds
for different age groups. Robinson and Dadson
(1956) had many subjects in a wide age range
(16-63 years), and they concluded that there was
no effect of age at frequencies below 1 kHz.
Consequently only data above this frequency
were reported separately for different age
groups. Yamada et al. (1980) mentioned
threshold differences of 2-6 dB between people
below and above 30 years, but he did not
mention details about group sizes and age
ranges, and the only original data reported are
for subjects around 20 years.
Teranishi (1965) reported data separately for five
age groups with 10 or 11 subjects in each group.
Whittle et al. (1972) reported data for two
groups, one with mean age 30 years (23 subjects)
and one with mean age 47 years (35 subjects).
The data from these two investigations are seen
in Figure 5. This data suggests that up to 1000
Figure 4. Low-frequency hearing thresholds for
men and women.
Figure 5. Low-frequency hearing
thresholds for different age groups.
Hz there is no effect of age up to about 55 years.
Monaural versus binaural hearing
It is well accepted that binaural thresholds are
slightly lower than monaural thresholds. The
difference is called the binaural advantage, and it
is said to be in the order of a few decibels, quite
often around 3 dB. Some of the investigations
already reported have studied the binaural
advantage at low and infrasonic frequencies.
Sivian and White (1933) simply concluded that
binaural thresholds were similar to monaural
thresholds for the person’s best ear. This was
observed for only two subjects, and it was most
likely too general and inaccurate. Anderson and
Whittle (1971) measured for the same 10
subjects both monaural and binaural thresholds.
Yeowart and Evans (1974) measured also
monaural and binaural thresholds for the same
group of subjects (3-4 depending on frequency).
The binaural thresholds were measured in two
situations, one with equal sound pressure at each
of the two ears, and one where a level difference
was applied between the two ears corresponding
to the difference between ears in the monaural
thresholds. The binaural advantage as observed
in these two investigations is displayed in Figure
6 (for Anderson and Whittle (1974) calculated by
the present authors as the difference between
mean monaural and mean binaural thresholds). It
is seen that a binaural advantage around 3 dB is
probably applicable also at low and infrasonic
Significance of sound field
Whittle et al. (1972) observed a large difference
between their thresholds obtained in a whole-
body pressure-field chamber and thresholds for
free-field exposure given in ISO R226:1961. In
order to see whether this was an effect of the
sound field they also measured free-field
thresholds for their own subjects. Measurements
were made in four series, where the
psychometric method and the set of included
frequencies varied. A difference of several
decibels was seen between thresholds obtained
in the two sound fields. However, differences of
the same order of magnitude were seen between
different series in the same sound field, and no
conclusion could be drawn about the effect of
Watanabe and Møller (1990b) studied for a
group of 12 subjects thresholds with exposure in
a free field and in a whole-body pressure-field
chamber, keeping all other conditions constant.
The results are shown in Figure 7. It is seen that
there is a very good agreement between the two
data sets in the overlapping frequency region.
Thus, the data give no reason to suspect any
effect of the sound field.
Do we sense with our ears?
Connected to the issue of the perception pathway
is the question, whether the same thresholds are
obtained if the whole body or only the ears are
exposed. Yeowart and Evans (1974) measured
thresholds in a whole-body chamber and with a
binaural earphone. The number of subjects was
not the same (12 and five respectively), and it is
not stated whether there is overlap between the
groups. Nevertheless, psychometric method and
conditions in general were probably very similar.
The data are seen in Figure 8. It is seen that the
agreement between the two data sets is very
Figure 6. The difference in
thresholds between monaural and
binaural exposure. (The data by
Yeowart and Evans (1974) marked
"equalized" refer to the condition,
where signals have been adjusted to
obtain equal sensation at the two
ears during the binaural exposure).
good. This supports the assumption that also
these low frequencies are actually sensed by the
Standardization of hearing thresholds
The first document that expresses an
international agreement about the human hearing
threshold is ISO R226:1961. The document
covered not only the hearing threshold but also
equal-loudness-level contours. Like all later
standards it does not cover frequencies below 20
Hz. The bibliography of the document includes
all relevant studies available at that time (Sivian
and White (1933), Fletcher and Munson (1933),
Churcher and King (1937), Robinson and
Dadson (1956)), but data reflect only the study
by Robinson and Dadson (1956).
In 1987 ISO R226:1961 was revised and issued
as ISO 226:1987. The revision was a major
editorial renewal, but the data were unchanged,
except that they were specified at slightly
different frequencies (the then new standard
third-octave frequencies), and the highest
frequency had been lowered from 15 kHz to 12.5
kHz. The unused studies had been removed from
In 1996 a standard was issued that covered only
the hearing threshold and not the equal-loudness-
level contours (ISO 389-7:1996). This was based
on data from Robinson and Dadson (1956),
Brinkmann (1973), Betke and Mellert (1989),
Suzuki et al. (1989), Fastl et al. (1990),
Vorländer (1991) (only frequencies above 8
kHz), Watanabe and Møller (1990a) and
Watanabe and Møller (1990b). Deviations from
previous standards were small (max. 3.9 dB at 20
Hz). An explanatory overview of the aggregation
and processing of the data for the standard is
given by Brinkmann et al. (1994).
Most recently agreement has been obtained for a
complete set of hearing thresholds and equal-
loudness-level contours, and a revised ISO 226
Figure 7. Low-frequency hearing
thresholds measured in free-field and
Figure 8. Low-frequency hearing thresholds
measured in ear-only exposure (earphone) and
whole-body pressure-field conditions.
was issued in 2003 (ISO 226:2003). The hearing
threshold is based on the same investigations as
ISO 389-7:1996 with the addition of Teranishi
(1965), Takeshima (1994), Poulsen and
Thøgersen (1994) (only above 1 kHz),
Takeshima et al. (2002) (only above 1 kHz),
Lydolf and Møller (1997), Poulsen and Han
(2000) and Takeshima et al. (2001). There are
only small differences (max. 2.1 dB, at low
frequencies max. 0.6 dB) between the threshold
in this document and in ISO 389-7:1996. In
order to avoid two different thresholds being
standardized (although they are close), a formal
revision has been initiated to make the thresholds
of ISO 389-7 identical to those of ISO 226:2003.
The threshold of the most recent standard (ISO
226:2003) is included for reference in the
Proposed normal hearing threshold below 20
As no standardized hearing threshold exists for
frequencies below 20 Hz, it is adequate at this
place to propose a normal threshold for the lower
frequencies, based on the existing data. Figure 9
Figure 9. Standardized hearing
threshold above 20 Hz (ISO 226:2003)
and results from recent investigations
covering frequencies at and below 20
Hz. (Whittle et al. (1972): weighted
average of 30- and 43-year groups;
Yeowart and Evans (1974): weighted
average of ear and full-body
exposures; Yamada et al. (1980):
weighted average of men and
Figure 10. Standardized hearing
threshold above 20 Hz (ISO
226:2003) and proposed normal
hearing thresholds for
frequencies below 20 Hz.
shows the most recent investigations of hearing
thresholds that have data in the infrasonic
frequency range, together with the hearing
threshold of ISO 226:2003. (The monaural data
from Yeowart et al. (1967) have been adjusted to
binaural conditions by subtraction of 3 dB).
Some investigations have obtained values that
are clearly too high in the 30-100 Hz range, but
there is a remarkably good agreement between
investigations in the 5-20 Hz range. Below 5 Hz
there are very few investigations, and
unfortunately they differ somewhat.
In Figure 10 the bold dashed line shows a
second-order polynomial regression curve as an
approximation to the data of Figure 9. As seen it
does not connect precisely to the curve of ISO
226:2003. There are data that agree well with the
standard (Yamada et al. (1980) and Watanabe
and Møller (1990)), but other data are higher. It
is not possible from the existing data material to
give a definitive solution in the area around 20
Hz. The proposed curve is also somewhat
uncertain below 5 Hz, where more data would be
needed to give more conclusive values. Despite
these uncertainties, the curve is probably correct
within a few decibels, at least in most of the
The thin dashed line gives the more coarse linear
regression (approximation of a straight line). The
slope of the line is 11.9 dB per octave which is
very close to the 12-dB-per-octave slope of the
G-weighting filter for infrasound (ISO
7196:1995). The thin dashed line corresponds to
a G-weighted sound pressure level of
approximately 97 dB.
Several hearing threshold studies have reported
standard deviations between subjects. A
summary of these is given in Figure 11.
In general the standard deviations between
subjects are in the order of 5 dB nearly
independent of frequency, maybe with a slight
increase at 20-50 Hz. Only the study by Sivian
and White (1933) shows considerably higher
values (in the range 200-1000 Hz), a result that
is most likely due to the experimental conditions
in this early study.
Nagai et al. (1982) reported that out of 62
subjects 39 had a threshold that followed the
general trend with increasing threshold for
decreasing frequency, whereas the threshold of
the remaining 23 subjects did not increase
further below 5 Hz. For the latter group the
threshold was claimed to flatten out or even
decrease with decreasing frequency. For the
same subjects no flattening was observed in
Figure 11. Standard deviations between subjects of the
hearing thresholds for low-pass-filtered white
noise, where data were similar to those of the rest
of the subjects.
Especially sensitive persons
A few studies mention persons with
extraordinary high hearing sensitivity at low
frequencies. Okai et al. (1980) report of two
subjects being especially sensitive to low-
frequency sound, and Yamada et al. (1980)
report of one subject. In addition, a subject has
been observed in our laboratory with a
repeatable, very low threshold (Lydolf,
unpublished 1997). Figure 12 shows three of
these cases compared to the ISO 226:2003 and
the proposed normal threshold at infrasonic
frequencies from above. (One of Okai’s two
subjects seems normal when compared to these
data and is not shown in the figure). Assuming
that the hearing threshold is normal distributed
around the mean with a standard deviation of 5
dB, then the probability for a person to have a
threshold around 20 dB below the mean - as seen
in this figure - is extremely low, and most likely
another explanation than the natural spread
should be sought.
Extraordinary sensitivity to low-frequency
sound might be explained by abnormalities in the
person’s hearing organs. A theoretical example
could be an abnormally small aperture in the
helicotrema at the apex of the cochlea. For low-
frequency sound the helicotrema acts like a kind
of pressure equalization vent for the perilymph
in the cochlea, equalizing the pressure between
the scala tympani and the scala vestibuli. If the
helicotrema is unusually narrow or blocked, it
cannot equalize the pressure fast enough, and an
unusually high pressure will build up between
the scala tympani and the scala vestibuli. The
result is a greater mechanical excitation of the
basilar membrane, and thus a higher sensitivity
to these sounds is expected. For examples of
simulations of the effect of the size of
helicotrema see e.g. Schick (1994).
Hearing threshold microstructures
Another explanation for an apparently high
sensitivity to low-frequency sound might be
found in so-called microstructures in the
individual hearing threshold. Frost (1987)
showed that the hearing threshold as a function
of frequency is not a smooth continuous line, but
has peaks and dips of sometimes several decibels
spread over the frequency spectrum. The
irregularities were reported to be repeatable and
not the result of experimental spread. An
example showing microstructures in two
persons’ hearing thresholds is given in Figure 13.
Although these particular persons do not have an
especially good hearing, the microstructure is
clearly seen. It is evident that for some persons
the phenomenon of microstructures may lead to
an extreme sensitivity at particular frequencies.
Figure 12. Hearing thresholds of three especially
Figure 13. Example of microstructures in the
hearing threshold for two persons.
Thresholds for non-sinusoidal sound
Only few threshold measurements exist for low-
frequency non-sinusoidal sound. Yeowart et al.
(1969) measured thresholds for octave-band-
filtered random noise with center frequencies in
the range 4-125 Hz and pure-tone thresholds for
the same subjects. For center frequencies down
to 32 Hz they found no significant difference
between pure-tone thresholds and octave-band
noise thresholds. In the range 4-16 Hz they
found a significantly lower threshold for octave-
band noise in the order of 4 dB. An explanation
could have been that it is the higher frequency
end of an octave band that is most audible, and
comparison is then to be made with the threshold
at that frequency rather than at the centre
frequency of the noise band. With this
explanation, the difference will be largest in the
frequency range with the highest slope of the
hearing threshold, i.e. 20-63 Hz. This was
however not the range where the difference was
seen, and the theory was thus not supported. This
led to the idea, that for frequencies from 16 Hz
and down, it might be the individual peaks in the
sound pressure that we detect. Yeowart et al.
(1969) modelled the hearing with appropriate
time constants of the loudness perception and
showed that the peak-detection theory could
explain the 4 dB lower noise thresholds. The
theory is in agreement with the subjective
impression of sensing the individual oscillations
at the lowest frequencies.
Nagai et al. (1982) made measurements with
lowpass-filtered white noise with a lower limit of
2 Hz and upper limits of 5, 10, 20 and 40 Hz.
Furthermore pure-tone thresholds were found for
the same subjects. These measurements show the
opposite pattern as that observed by Yeowart et
al. (1969). For the random noise with upper
limits of 20 and 40 Hz the threshold was lower
than the pure-tone threshold (7-10 dB), but for
the 2-5 Hz random noise the threshold was
higher than the pure-tone threshold (about 6 dB).
Generally low-frequency and infrasonic sounds
from everyday life are not pure tones alone, but
rather combinations of different random noises
and tonal components. It is however, impossible
to make thresholds for all imaginable
combinations of sounds that exist, and as seen
above there is no final conclusion about possible
higher or lower sensitivity to noise bands than to
pure tones. Anyway, differences seem to be
relatively modest, and the pure-tone threshold
can with a reasonable approximation be used as
a guideline for the thresholds also for non-
Field measurements of hearing thresholds
All the investigations reported in the section
‘Studies of hearing threshold’ have been carried
out in the laboratory. Tsunekawa et al. (1997)
carried out an interesting study, where they
found hearing thresholds using sound that
occurred naturally in the field. They used the
sound under two bridges, inside an automobile
and beside some cooling towers. Of course, their
resolution in frequency was determined by the
frequencies that occurred naturally. While they
recorded the sound they asked subjects to
indicate, when the sound was audible and when
it was not. They only used responses, when later
analyses showed that the sound was sufficiently
The results are given in Figure 14 together with
the standardized threshold for frequencies above
20 Hz and the proposed normal hearing
threshold for frequencies below 20 Hz. It is
interesting to see how close their results are to
the results obtained in the laboratory.
Figure 14. Hearing thresholds measured in the
field by Tsunekawa et al. (1987).
As mentioned in the section ‘The sensation
mechanism’, various attempts have been made to
determine the way we sense the low and
infrasonic frequencies. An investigation by
Landström et al. (1983) deserves special
attention. Hearing thresholds were measured for
10 normal-hearing subjects (five of each
gender). Furthermore vibrotactile thresholds
were measured for the same subjects and for 10
subjects with complete perceptive or sensory-
neural deafness. The vibrotactile sensation was
described as soft vibrations in different parts of
the body, mostly in the lumbar, buttock, thigh
and calf regions.
The results from Landström et al. are given in
Figure 15. It is seen that the vibrotactile
thresholds are very similar for the hearing and
the non-hearing groups. This suggests that the
hearing subjects were really able to distinguish
between the two sensations. The findings also
support the idea that the sense of hearing is the
primary sense for detecting the presence of
sound at low and infrasonic frequencies. On the
other hand, the results suggest that an additional
way of sensation connected to vibration occurs at
levels that are only 20-25 dB above the hearing
Spontaneous reactions from subjects and visitors
in the authors’ laboratory as well as their own
experience suggest that vibrotactile sensations
and a feeling of pressure may also occur in the
upper part of the chest and in the throat region.
Studies of equal-loudness-level contours
Loudness is a measure of the subjectively
percieved intensity of sound. The unit of
loudness level is phon, and for a given sound it
has the same numerical value as the sound
pressure level (in dB relative to 20 µPa) of an
equally loud reference sound. The reference
sound consists of a frontally incident, sinusoidal
plane wave at a frequency of 1 kHz. An equal-
loudness-level contour is a curve in the sound
pressure level versus frequency plane that
represents tones of the same loudness level.
Most studies are made with the reference tone
held at a constant level, while some
psychometric procedure is used to find the level
of the test tone that makes the two tones appear
equally loud to the subject. A few studies have
used fixed levels of the test tone and varied the
level of the reference tone, in which case
interpolation is needed to obtain equal-loudness-
Initially, it should be mentioned that Kingsbury
(1927) was one of the first to attempt
measurements of equal-loudness-level contours.
However, he used a monaural earphone, and no
attempt was made to calibrate it to free-field
conditions, thus his results will not be further
reported here. Churcher et al. (1934) also made
some early studies of loudness, but they used a
reference tone of 800 Hz and a mixture of free-
field and earphone exposures, thus their results
will also not be reported further.
One of the best known studies of equal-loudness-
level contours is the early one by Fletcher and
Munson (1933). They reported data for the
frequency range 62 Hz-16 kHz and loudness
range 10-120 phon, based on measurements with
11 subjects. The measurements were performed
using earphones, but since these were calibrated
to free-field conditions, their data are considered
relevant and will be included in the following.
(In the review of hearing thresholds given above,
studies that used audiometric earphones were
excluded due to the risk of interference from
Figure 15. Hearing and vibrotactile thresholds as
measured for hearing and deaf subjects by
Landström et al. (1983).
physiological noise. This is not considered a
problem for loudness comparisons, which take
place at levels somewhat above threshold).
Most studies have determined points of equal-
loudness-level directly according to the
definition, i.e. through comparisons of the test
tone and the reference tone in a free or an
approximately free field. This applies to the
studies of Churcher and King (1937) (54 Hz-9
kHz, 10-90 phon, up to 30 subjects depending on
frequency and level), Betke and Mellert (1989)
(100 Hz-1 kHz, 30 phon; 50 Hz-12.5 kHz, 40, 50
and 60 phon, 28 subjects), Suzuki et al. (1989)
(125 Hz-8 kHz, 40 and 70 phon, 23 subjects; 63
Hz-12,5 kHz, 20 phon, ten subject), Fastl et al.
(1990) (100 Hz-1 kHz, 30, 50 and 70 phon, 12
subjects), Watanabe and Møller (1990a) (25 Hz-
1 kHz, 20, 40, 60 and 80 phon, 12 subjects),
Lydolf and Møller (1997) (50 Hz-1 kHz, 20, 40,
60, 80, 90 and 100 phon, 27 subjects),
Takeshima et al. (1997) (31.5-12.5 kHz, 20, 40,
50, 60, 70 and 90 phon, 9-30 subject depending
on frequency and loudness level), Bellmann et
al. (1999) (100 Hz-1 kHz, 60 phon, 12 subjects)
and Takeshima et al. (2001) (50 Hz-16 kHz, 20,
40 and 70 phon, eight subjects).
For the lowest frequencies it is a practical
problem to create sound in the same room as the
reference tone (anechoic room) at sufficiently
high level without significant harmonic
distortion. It will be noted that none of the free-
field studies mentioned in the previous
paragraph had frequencies below 25 Hz, and
most studies did not even go that far down.
Furthermore, it is often mentioned that it is
difficult for subjects to compare tones that are
very distant in frequency. Some investigators
have overcome these problems by making
indirect loudness matches to the 1 kHz reference
tone. Points of equal loudness are determined at
a low-frequency anchor point of for example 100
Hz through direct comparisons with 1 kHz in an
anechoic room. Then the 100 Hz points are used
as new references for loudness matches in a
pressure-field chamber, where large sound
pressure levels can be produced at the lowest
Studies that used exposures in pressure field in
combination with individual anchor points
determined in free field comprise those of Kirk
(1983) (2-63 Hz, 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100 phon,
anchor points at 63 Hz, 14 subjects), Møller and
Andresen (1984) (2-63 Hz, 20, 40, 60, 80 and
100 phon, anchor points at 63 Hz, 20 subjects),
Lydolf and Møller (1997) (20-100 Hz, 20, 40,
60, 80 and 100 phon, anchor points at 100 Hz, 14
subjects plus three added after publication) and
Bellmann et al. (1999) (16-160 Hz, 60 phon,
anchor points at 100 Hz, 12 subjects).
Two studies used experimental designs
equivalent of using non-individual anchor
points. Robinson and Dadson (1956) measured
equal-loudness relations for the frequency range
25 Hz-15 kHz (up to approximately 130 phon
and up to 120 subjects depending on frequency).
Free-field conditions were used for the higher
frequencies, while a suitably terminated duct
was used for the lowest frequencies. At the
lowest frequencies they used reference tones of
50 or 200 Hz that were converted into phon by
means of interpolation in the data material from
the free field. Whittle et al. (1972) used a
pressure field for their experiments (3.15-50 Hz,
up to 32 subjects depending on frequency). They
used a reference tone at 50 Hz at three levels (60,
73 and 86 dB) without measuring the connection
to 1 kHz. Subsequently they used ISO 226:1961
to find the standardized loudness levels of their
reference tones and labelled the contours
accordingly (33.5, 53 and 70.5 phon).
Figures 16-18 show the equal-loudness-level
contours measured in the investigations
mentioned above. It should be noted that the data
from Fletcher and Munson (1933) and Robinson
and Dadson (1956) are not original data, but data
interpolated between original data points. For the
data by Whittle et al. (1972) the authors have
taken the liberty of plotting them as 20, 40 and
60 phon, respectively, since these loudness levels
seem more reasonable than the original labels of
33.5, 53 and 70.5 phon when comparing with the
other data in the same frequency area.
The figures clearly show large differences
between equal-loudness-level contours from
different investigations. These differences are
not only in the low-frequency region but also at
Standardization of equal-loudness-level
The first international standard about equal-
loudness-level contours is ISO R226:1961. The
contours in this were solely based on the study
by Robinson and Dadson (1956), despite the fact
that also other studies were present at that time.
As already mentioned in the section on
standardization of hearing thresholds, the
document was revised and issued as ISO
226:1987, however without changes in data.
Virtually all other investigations show data that
are significantly higher than those of Robinson
and Dadson (1956) in the frequency area below
1 kHz. The difference has been ascribed to the
different psychometric methods used. The data
from Robinson and Dadson seem significantly
biased towards lower levels. Awareness of bias
problems and the use of computerized adaptive
psychometric methods in later studies have
provided data that are believed to be more
Figure 17. Low-frequency equal-
loudness-level contours for 30, 60
and 90 phon.
Figure 16. Low-frequency equal-
loudness-level contours for 20, 50
and 80 phon.
Most recently agreement has been obtained for a
complete set of hearing thresholds and equal-
loudness-level contours, and a revised standard
has been issued (ISO 226:2003). Below 1 kHz
the equal-loudness-level contours are based on
the investigations by Kirk (1983), Møller and
Andresen (1984), Betke and Mellert (1989),
Suzuki et al. (1989), Fastl et al. (1990),
Watanabe and Møller (1990), Lydolf and Møller
(1997), Takeshima et al. (1997), Bellmann et al.
(1999) and Takeshima et al. (2001).
Figure 19 shows the standardized equal-
loudness-level contours for the frequency range
below 1 kHz, and the difference between the two
old and the new standard is obvious.
Proposed normal equal-loudness-level
contours below 20 Hz
No standardized equal-loudness-level contours
exist for frequencies below 20 Hz, and only four
investigations provide data in this frequency
region. Whittle et al. (1972) and Møller and
Andresen (1984) produce quite similar contours,
and the two points provided by Bellmann et al.
(1999) at 60 phon, 16 and 20 Hz, fit well with
these. The contours by Kirk (1983) deviate
considerably, and the authors take the liberty of
disregarding these data in the following. The
contours from the three other investigations are
shown in Figure 20. Based on these data the
authors have presented their best guess of
general contours of 20, 40, 60 and 80 phon for
frequencies below 20 Hz in Figure 21. However,
these contours should be taken with great
reservation because of the sparse amount of data
and the uncertainty connected to the exact phon
values they should be labelled with. On the other
hand it seems beyond any doubt that the contours
are very close in this frequency region.
More definite contours at low and infrasonic
frequencies - in particular at high loudness levels
- require that more experimental data become
Figure 18. Low-frequency equal-
loudness-level contours for 40, 70
and 100 phon.
Figure 19. Standardized equal-loudness-level
available. Unfortunately, it is not a trivial task to
produce the high sound pressure levels needed
without significant harmonic distortion.
The human perception of sound below 200 Hz
has been reviewed, and on the basis of results
from various investigations it is possible to draw
some general conclusions.
The hearing becomes gradually less sensitive for
decreasing frequency, but there is no specific
frequency at which the hearing stops. Despite the
general understanding that infrasound is
inaudible, humans can perceive sound also
below 20 Hz. This applies to all humans with a
normal hearing organ, and not just to a few
persons. The perceived character of the sound
changes gradually with frequency. For pure
tones the tonal character and the sensation of
pitch decrease with decreasing frequency, and
they both cease around 20 Hz. Below this
frequency tones are perceived as discontinuous.
From around 10 Hz and lower it is possible to
follow and count the single cycles of the tone,
and the perception changes into a sensation of
pressure at the ears. At levels 20-25 dB above
threshold it is possible to feel vibrations in
Figure 21. Proposal of equal-
loudness-level contours for the
infrasonic region together with
standardized contours above 20
Figure 20. Standardized equal-
loudness-level contours above 20 Hz
and results from investigations
covering frequencies at and below 20
various parts of the body, e.g. the lumbar,
buttock, thigh and calf regions. A feeling of
pressure may occur in the upper part of the chest
and the throat region.
There is a reasonable agreement between studies
of hearing thresholds. For frequencies down to
20 Hz, a normal threshold has been standardized
by ISO, and the present article presents a
proposed normal threshold one decade further
down in frequency. The proposed curve
corresponds roughly to a G-weighted sound
pressure level of 97 dB. More data are needed to
give a more conclusive curve.
It cannot be finally concluded whether
thresholds for noise bands are the same as pure-
tone thresholds. Below 20 Hz it is possible that
the peak sound pressure determines the
sensation. The differences are small, though, and
it seems reasonable to use the pure-tone
threshold as a guideline also for non-sinusoidal
The hearing threshold is the same for men and
women. Degradation with age takes place only
above 50 years. The threshold is the same in free
and pressure field. Like at higher frequencies,
the binaural advantage is around 3 dB, and the
standard deviation between individuals is around
5 dB. However, there is evidence of individuals
that have a hearing that is much better than
normal (several times the standard deviation
away from the mean). It has also been shown that
the hearing threshold may have a microstructure
that causes a person to be especially sensitive at
certain frequencies. These two phenomena may
explain observations from case studies, where
individuals seem to be annoyed by sound that is
far below the normal threshold of hearing. It
should be stressed that the explanation has not
been confirmed in specific cases.
Thresholds are the same, whether the whole
body or just the ears are exposed, thus is can be
concluded that the sensation takes place in the
ears even at frequencies below 20 Hz. However,
it is not totally clear, whether the sensory
pathway for infrasound is the normal pathway
for hearing. The observation that deaf people can
only detect infrasound through vibrotactile
sensation - and for that they have the same
threshold as normal-hearing persons - suggests
that the normal auditory system is used. A
hypothesis that these frequencies are heard in
terms of harmonic distortion in the ear is not
In addition to direct detection, infrasound may
be detected through amplitude modulation of
sound at higher frequencies. This modulation is
caused by the movement of the eardrum and
middle-ear bones induced by the infrasound,
which results in changes of transmission
properties. At very high levels, modulation of
speech can occur due to a pulsating airflow in the
throat caused by the sound.
The perceived intensity of the sound rises more
steeply above threshold than at higher
frequencies. This is especially pronounced for
frequencies below 20 Hz, where a sound only
few decibels above threshold may be perceived
as quite intense. Combined with the natural
spread in thresholds, this may have the effect that
a sound, which is inaudible to some people, may
be loud to others. The compression of the
dynamic range of the auditory system is reflected
in the equal-loudness-level contours. Such
contours have been standardized for frequencies
down to 20 Hz, but there is a reasonable
agreement between data also below this
frequency, and contours have been proposed
down to 2 Hz. However, this is based on only
few investigations and more data are needed.
The authors want to thank their local and
international colleagues for fruitful discussions
about our perception of low frequency sound.
Many discussions have taken place in an
international collaboration on the loudness
function, the NEDO project, which was only
made possible thanks to the effort of Professor
Yoiti Suzuki, Tohoku University, Japan. We also
want to thank our former colleague, Morten
Lydolf, who started the aggregation of the large
amount of data and made it available to us. The
work was supported by the Danish Technical
Research Council and Aalborg University.
Department of Acoustics, Aalborg University
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