The middle ear is a composite organ formed from all three germ layers and the neural crest. It provides the link between the outside world and the inner ear, where sound is transduced and routed to the brain for processing. Extensive classical and modern studies have described the complex morphology and origin of the middle ear. Non-mammalian vertebrates have a single ossicle, the columella. Mammals have three functionally equivalent ossicles, designated the malleus, incus and stapes. In this review, I focus on the role of genes known to function in the middle ear. Genetic studies are beginning to unravel the induction and patterning of the multiple middle ear elements including the tympanum, skeletal elements, the air-filled cavity, and the insertion point into the inner ear oval window. Future studies that elucidate the integrated spatio-temporal signaling mechanisms required to pattern the middle ear organ system are needed. The longer-term translational benefits of understanding normal and abnormal ear development will have a direct impact on human health outcomes.