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A unit called a phon    is used to express loudness numerically. Phons differ from decibels because the phon is a unit of loudness perception, whereas the decibel is a unit of physical intensity. [link] shows the relationship of loudness to intensity (or intensity level) and frequency for persons with normal hearing. The curved lines are equal-loudness curves. Each curve is labeled with its loudness in phons. Any sound along a given curve is perceived as equally loud by the average person. The curves were determined by having large numbers of people compare the loudness of sounds at different frequencies and sound intensity levels. At a frequency of 1000 Hz, phons are taken to be numerically equal to decibels.

The graph is the plot of sound level in decibels versus frequency in Herz. Data for 0, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 110, and 120 phons is plotted. Data is plotted as curved lines stacked one a top of other.
The relationship of loudness in phons to intensity level (in decibels) and intensity (in watts per meter squared) for persons with normal hearing. The curved lines are equal-loudness curves—all sounds on a given curve are perceived as equally loud. Phons and decibels are defined to be the same at 1000 Hz.

Measuring loudness

(a) What is the loudness in phons of a 100-Hz sound that has an intensity level of 80 dB? (b) What is the intensity level in decibels of a 4000-Hz sound having a loudness of 70 phons? (c) At what intensity level will an 8000-Hz sound have the same loudness as a 200-Hz sound at 60 dB?


The graph in [link] should be referenced to solve this example. To find the loudness of a given sound, you must know its frequency and intensity level, locate that point on the square grid, and then interpolate between loudness curves to get the loudness in phons. Once that point is located, the intensity level can be determined from the vertical axis.


  1. Identify knowns: The square grid of the graph relating phons and decibels is a plot of intensity level versus frequency—both physical quantities: 100 Hz at 80 dB lies halfway between the curves marked 70 and 80 phons.
    Find the loudness: 75 phons.
  2. Identify knowns: Values are given to be 4000 Hz at 70 phons.
    Follow the 70-phon curve until it reaches 4000 Hz. At that point, it is below the 70 dB line at about 67 dB.
    Find the intensity level: 67 dB.
  3. Locate the point for a 200 Hz and 60 dB sound.
    Find the loudness: This point lies just slightly above the 50-phon curve, and so its loudness is 51 phons.
    Look for the 51-phon level is at 8000 Hz: 63 dB.


These answers, like all information extracted from [link] , have uncertainties of several phons or several decibels, partly due to difficulties in interpolation, but mostly related to uncertainties in the equal-loudness curves.

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Check Your Understanding Describe how amplitude is related to the loudness of a sound.

Amplitude is directly proportional to the experience of loudness. As amplitude increases, loudness increases.

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In this section, we discussed the characteristics of sound and how we hear, but how are the sounds we hear produced? Interesting sources of sound are musical instruments and the human voice, and we will discuss these sources. But before we can understand how musical instruments produce sound, we need to look at the basic mechanisms behind these instruments. The theories behind the mechanisms used by musical instruments involve interference, superposition, and standing waves, which we discuss in the next section.

Questions & Answers

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Practice Key Terms 8

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