The ear appears to have arisen early in the evolution of the vertebrates. While there are significant interspecific differences in ear structure, it appears that receptor cell structure and the basic function of the ear and auditory system are similar among all vertebrate groups. In this paper we present the evolution of the sensory hair cells of the ear, the origins of the ear itself, and selected functions of the sense of hearing. We argue that there have been strong selective pressures in most vertebrate groups for the sorts of sound encoding and processing abilities that result in the efficient detection, localization, and identification of sound sources in noisy environments. Many of the encoding and processing strategies underlying these functions are shared as well.