What is Sound Localization?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Sound localization is the ability to pinpoint the source and location of a sound, using input from the ears, as well as cognitive processes. Hearing animals are all capable of this to some extent, although some are better at it than others; owls, for example, have excellent sound localization abilities because they rely on sound to locate and track their prey. Errors with sound localization can cause disorientation and confusion.

Owls have outstanding sound localization.
Owls have outstanding sound localization.

When sound enters the ears, it goes through a complex filtering process. The ear can return information to the brain on roughly where sounds come from, as well as providing data about volume and frequency of the sound. The brain can process this information extremely rapidly to provide input about what is happening in the surrounding environment. These reactions occur in fractions of a second, providing a nearly real-time feed of information about noise. As animals develop, they also learn to distinguish fine details; humans, for instance, learn to recognize speech at a very early age.

The human ear can typically locate the source of a sound in the environment.
The human ear can typically locate the source of a sound in the environment.

Evolutionwise, sound localization has a number of advantages. Predators use sound, among other senses, to find their prey and rely on the ability to precisely fix locations on the basis of sound alone when other senses may not be available or may be compromised. Prey need an excellent sense of hearing and a keen sense of location and distance so they can avoid predators. A horse grazing in a pasture, for example, can hear the sound of approaching feet, determine what kind of animal is nearing, and find out where the animal is coming from, all without looking up to get visual information.

By hearing alone, a horse grazing in a pasture may be able to determine what kind of animal is approaching and from what direction.
By hearing alone, a horse grazing in a pasture may be able to determine what kind of animal is approaching and from what direction.

Neurologically, the processes involved in sound localization are very complex. People can experience a variety of problems along the way when they attempt to localize sounds. Losing hearing, even partially, in one ear can throw off the brain's calculations, returning bad information. Likewise, errors in the pathways to the brain may distort sensory information and the brain can also scramble up sound data when it is processing it, returning bad information.

Tricks can be played with sound localization to create the illusion of sounds originating from a different or unusual location. Ventriloquism involves making people believe a sound is coming from the mouth of a dummy instead of its handler, for example. Distorted sound designed to confuse and imbalance people may be used in funhouses, theatrical films, and even interrogation rooms, with the goal of making people feel unsettled and nervous.

Owls use their distinctive faces for sound localization.
Owls use their distinctive faces for sound localization.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Perdido - That would be a freaky sound to hear. I am guessing that your haunted forest used actual human voices and screams instead of those altered and made to sound like monsters or demons.

I hate it when haunted houses try to scare you with unnatural voices. I don’t believe in monsters anymore, and even though these houses are supposedly designed for both children and adults, people still use those stupid sound effects.

I went in one that gave me chills, though. Whoever designed it was a genius with sound localization tricks.

The voices sounded like truly terrified humans, and some of them actually sounded like they were being brutally murdered. None of us knew where the voices were coming from, and apparitions would appear before us by some sort of projection trick.


My dog has really good sound localization. She is a breed of hunting dog, but I never trained her to do anything. She has the natural ability to hear even the faintest sounds and associate them with prey.

She has done something that no other dog I’ve had has been able to do. She has caught squirrels! This little critters are super quick and agile, and it’s extremely tough for a dog to catch them without a hunter’s help.

She can hear the noise of rustling in the leaves, as soft as a squirrel’s footsteps are. She chases them up trees all the time, but she has actually managed to sneak up on one and snatch it before it could climb.


My local Halloween haunted forest uses lots of tricks to mess with people’s sound localization. It’s pretty creepy when you are in the dark and you hear several voices, one right after the other, that come from different directions.

If it’s a totally cloudy night, they position their workers right out in the open. They are instructed to speak at certain intervals from various positions, and this freaks people out.

There is also one area that is designed to make voices echo. Though the speaker may be behind a curtain directly in front of you, it sounds like he is behind you because of the echo.

They even use intercom systems for moonlit nights when it would be too hard to hide. These are attached to trees, and one even runs down a line stretched between two trees, so it sounds like someone is running past you screaming. This one really got to me.


I often have to walk through my neighbor’s pasture to find my dogs, which are usually hunting something they heard rustling in the tall grass. I’m always very alert while walking there, and I make sure I know where all the creatures are before progressing.

It’s easy for my brain to distinguish the sound and location of a cow. They are much louder when they walk, and the whooshing sound of their huge bodies moving through the grass is a dead giveaway.

If I hear galloping, I know to get to shelter quickly. This means one or more cows are running toward me quickly, and they could easily squash me.

I can tell if a snake is nearby. When they move, it sounds like a rope is being dragged through the weeds.

I usually can pinpoint my dogs’ location by listening for sniffing and rapid movements. They often have their noses in a hole or a den, and they move very quickly when they smell that their prey has relocated.

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