Psychoacoustics is the branch of psychophysics involving the scientific study of sound perception and audiology—how humans perceive various sounds. More specifically, it is the branch of science studying the psychological responses associated with sound (including noise, speech, and music). Psychoacoustics is an interdisciplinary field of many areas, including psychology, acoustics, electronic engineering, physics, biology, physiology, and computer science.
Hearing is not a purely mechanical phenomenon of wave propagation, but is also a sensory and perceptual event; in other words, when a person hears something, that something arrives at the ear as a mechanical sound wave traveling through the air, but within the ear, it is transformed into neural action potentials. The outer hair cells (OHC) of a mammalian cochlea give rise to enhanced sensitivity and better frequency resolution of the mechanical response of the cochlear partition. These nerve pulses then travel to the brain where they are perceived. Hence, in many problems in acoustics, such as for audio processing, it is advantageous to take into account not just the mechanics of the environment, but also the fact that both the ear and the brain are involved in a person's listening experience.
The inner ear, for example, does significant signal processing in converting sound waveforms into neural stimuli, so certain differences between waveforms may be imperceptible. Data compression techniques, such as MP3, make use of this fact. In addition, the ear has a nonlinear response to sounds of different intensity levels; this nonlinear response is called loudness. Telephone networks and audio noise reduction systems make use of this fact by nonlinearly compressing data samples before transmission, and then expanding them for playback. Another effect of the ear's nonlinear response is that sounds that are close in frequency produce phantom beat notes or intermodulation distortion products.
The term "psychoacoustics" also arises in discussions about cognitive psychology and the effects that personal expectations, prejudices, and predispositions may have on listeners' relative evaluations and comparisons of sonic aesthetics and acuity and on listeners' varying determinations about the relative qualities of various musical instruments and performers. The expression that one "hears what one wants (or expects) to hear" may pertain in such discussions.
The psychoacoustic model provides for high-quality lossy signal compression by describing which parts of a given digital audio signal can be removed (or aggressively compressed) safely—that is, without significant losses in the (consciously) perceived quality of the sound.
It can explain how a sharp clap of the hands might seem painfully loud in a quiet library but is hardly noticeable after a car backfires on a busy, urban street. This provides great benefit to the overall compression ratio, and psychoacoustic analysis routinely leads to compressed music files that are 1/10th to 1/12th the size of high-quality masters, but with discernibly less proportional quality loss. Such compression is a feature of nearly all modern lossy audio compression formats. Some of these formats include Dolby Digital (AC-3), MP3, Opus, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, WMA, MPEG-1 Layer II (used for digital audio broadcasting in several countries), and ATRAC, the compression used in MiniDisc and some Walkman models.
Psychoacoustics is based heavily on human anatomy, especially the ear's limitations in perceiving sound as outlined previously. To summarize, these limitations are:
A compression algorithm can assign a lower priority to sounds outside the range of human hearing. By carefully shifting bits away from the unimportant components and toward the important ones, the algorithm ensures that the sounds a listener is most likely to perceive are most accurately represented.
Psychoacoustics includes topics and studies that are relevant to music psychology and music therapy. Theorists such as Benjamin Boretz consider some of the results of psychoacoustics to be meaningful only in a musical context.
Irv Teibel's Environments series LPs (1969–79) are an early example of commercially available sounds released expressly for enhancing psychological abilities.
Psychoacoustics has long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with computer science, computer engineering, and computer networking. Internet pioneers J. C. R. Licklider and Bob Taylor both completed graduate-level work in psychoacoustics, while BBN Technologies originally specialized in consulting on acoustics issues before it began building the first packet-switched computer networks.
Licklider wrote a paper entitled "A duplex theory of pitch perception".
Psychoacoustics is applied within many fields of software development, where developers map proven and experimental mathematical patterns in digital signal processing. Many audio compression codecs such as MP3 and Opus use a psychoacoustic model to increase compression ratios. The success of conventional audio systems for the reproduction of music in theatres and homes can be attributed to psychoacoustics and psychoacoustic considerations that gave rise to novel audio systems, such as psychoacoustic sound field synthesis. Furthermore, scientists have experimented with limited success in creating new acoustic weapons, which emit frequencies that may impair, harm, or kill. Psychoacoustics are also leveraged in sonification to make multiple independent data dimensions audible and easily interpretable. This enables auditory guidance without the need for spatial audio and in sonification computer games and other applications, such as drone flying and image-guided surgery. It is also applied today within music, where musicians and artists continue to create new auditory experiences by masking unwanted frequencies of instruments, causing other frequencies to be enhanced. Yet another application is in the design of small or lower-quality loudspeakers, which can use the phenomenon of missing fundamentals to give the effect of bass notes at lower frequencies than the loudspeakers are physically able to produce (see references).
Automobile manufacturers engineer their engines and even doors to have a certain sound.