A minimal physics-based model for musical perception

Kosar Mozaffari, Fatemeh Ahmadpoor, Qian Deng, Pradeep Sharma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Some people, entirely untrained in music, can listen to a song and replicate it on a piano with unnerving accuracy. What enables some to “hear” music so much better than others? Long-standing research confirms that part of the answer is undoubtedly neurological and can be improved with training. However, are there structural, physical, or engineering attributes of the human hearing mechanism apparatus (i.e., the hair cells of the internal ear) that render one human innately superior to another in terms of propensity to listen to music? In this work, we investigate a physics-based model of the electromechanics of the hair cells in the inner ear to understand why a person might be physiologically better poised to distinguish musical sounds. A key feature of the model is that we avoid a “black-box” systems-type approach. All parameters are well-defined physical quantities, including membrane thickness, bending modulus, electromechanical properties, and geometrical features, among others. Using the two-tone interference problem as a proxy for musical perception, our model allows us to establish the basis for exploring the effect of external factors such as medicine or environment. As an example of the insights we obtain, we conclude that the reduction in bending modulus of the cell membranes (which for instance may be caused by the usage of a certain class of analgesic drugs) or an increase in the flexoelectricity of the hair cell membrane can interfere with the perception of two-tone excitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2216146120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jan 31 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • flexoelectricity
  • mechanics
  • music
  • soft matter


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