The specific phenomenon that Tartini discovered was physical. Sum and difference tones are thought to be caused sometimes by the non-linearity of the inner ear. This causes intermodulation distortion of the various frequencies which enter the ear. They are combined linearly, generating relatively faint components with frequencies equal to the sums and differences of whole multiples of the original frequencies. Any components which are heard are usually lower, with the most commonly heard frequency being just the difference tone, f2f1, though this may be a consequence of the other phenomena. Although much less common, the following frequencies may also be heard:
For a time it was thought that the inner ear was solely responsible whenever a sum or difference tone was heard. However, experiments show evidence that even when using headphones providing a single pure tone to each ear separately, listeners may still hear a difference tone. Since the peculiar, non-linear physics of the ear doesn’t come into play in this case, it is thought that this must be a separate, neural phenomenon. Compare binaural beats.