Streptoccocus pneumoniae infection can result in local and systemic diseases such as otitis media, pneumonia and meningitis. Sensorineural hearing loss associated with this infection is mediated by the release of an exotoxin, pneumolysin. The goal of the present study was to characterize the mechanisms of pneumolysin toxicity in cochlear hair cells in vitro. Pneumolysin induced severe damage in cochlear hair cells, ranging from stereocilia disorganization to total cell loss. Surprisingly, pneumolysin-induced cell death preferentially targeted inner hair cells. Pneumolysin triggered in vitro cell death by an influx of calcium. Extracellular calcium appeared to enter the cell through a pore formed by the toxin. Buffering intracellular calcium with BAPTA improved hair cell survival. The mitochondrial apoptotic pathway involved in pneumolysin-induced cell death was demonstrated by the use of bongkrekic acid. Binding of pneumolysin to the hair cell plasma membrane was required to induce cell death. Increasing external calcium reduced cell toxicity by preventing the binding of pneumolysin to hair cell membranes. These results showed the significant role of calcium both in triggering pneumolysin-induced hair cell apoptosis and in preventing the toxin from binding to its cellular target.