Difference between listening and hearing
Listening is often confused with hearing. Many people use these two words incorrectly in their speeches and writings without giving a second thought to clarify what they truly mean. I hope my comprehensive endeavor in this regards will shed light on this confusion.
Following image briefly depicts the difference between listening and hearing.
Image credits © Gaurav Akrani.
Following points distinguish hearing and listening:
- Type of act,
- Starting point,
- Selection and focus,
- Attention and efforts,
- Volunteered or not,
- Nature of process,
- Conscious or subconscious,
- When it happens? And
Now let's compare listening and hearing on the above fourteen points.
1. Type of act
Listening is a Psychological Act. It means it relates to a conscious mind or mental phenomena.
Hearing is a Physiological Act. It implies it is one of the biological mechanisms involved in the functioning of a human body.
Listening is an active mental process.
Hearing is a passive bodily process.
Listening involves simultaneous operation of:
- Sound detecting eardrums,
- Conscious psyche (i.e. fully aware mind), and
- An alert reasoning brain.
Hearing involves only the working of audio sensing eardrums subconscious functioning as a sound detecting bodily organ.
4. Starting point
Listening starts after hearing when we begin to select a particular type of sound, focus on it and make an interpretation out of it.
On the contrary, hearing begins before we listen when sound is subconsciously detected on our eardrums. Here, we don’t try to make a meaningful understanding because if we do so it becomes a listening process.
In the listening process, we first focus our attention on a particular form or type of sounds (like speech, music, etc.) we are interested in and then try to deduce its meaning.
In the hearing process, may types of sounds fall on our ears, but we are not entirely aware of what we hear. We are only capable to hear all those sounds that fall within the human audible range of 20 Hz to 20 Khz. We hear sounds irrespective of whether we like or dislike them.
We listen because we feel certain sounds are important to gain knowledge, receive useful information and are, therefore, worth listening.
We hear because we neither have a full awareness nor any control over it. To hear or not to isn't within our choice or preference.
7. Selection and focus
In listening we are selective and focus only on some wanted sounds and filter out (ignore) other unwanted sounds.
In hearing, we are not selective at all. Here, we neither focus on a particular sound nor filter out any unwanted sounds. We are compelled to hear all present sounds altogether.
The moment we stop paying any further attention to what we hear the process of listening again becomes hearing.
The point at which we get fully aware of what we hear, the process of hearing becomes listening.
9. Attention and efforts
In listening, we pay close attention and put focused mental efforts to derive the meaning of a kind of sound we have decided to listen.
In hearing, we neither pay any close attention nor put any mental efforts to figure out what we hear.
10. Volunteered or not
Listening is done voluntarily by a person. In other words, here, a person volunteers (takes a part), chooses or decides whether to or not to listen to something and for how long (time).
For example, we turn on a radio for some time and later turn it off when we lose interest to listen.
Hearing is done involuntarily by every individual. In simple words, an individual has no choice regarding volunteering or not, to hear. If one is within the range of any propagating sound, then he is bound to hear it no matter what his choice is.
For an instance, when it thunders we hear an unstoppable loud rumbling noise coming from the sky. We can't stop it irrespective of our individual wish or choice.
11. Nature of process
Listening is a secondary and temporary process:
- It is secondary since it begins only after the primary hearing stage.
- It is temporary because we can't pay a focused mental attention to something interesting we hear for more than few hours.
- For an instance, if an ongoing college lecture doesn't seem to cease soon students start yawning out of boredom and stop paying further attention. It doesn't matter, how well, and with deep interest a professor teaches.
- Thus, listening is only a temporal phenomenon, and it is subjected to an individual's psychological (mental) capacity to listen.
Hearing is a primary and continuous process:
- It is primary because a listening process always starts after it.
- It is continuous since it is always happening whether we decide or not to listen. There is hardly any time when our ears don't hear anything. Some unwanted sound is always present in the vicinity of our ears no matters where we are present. Even during the silence of late night hours some disturbance always manages to creep in.
- For an example, a gang of dogs fighting and barking, a watchman or security guard whistling during his late night patrolling to ward off thieves, a vibrating noise of air conditioners, so on.
- Thus, the sound is always present in our background what varies is simply its intensity.
12. Conscious or subconscious
Listening occurs at a conscious level. That is, whatever we listen to we are entirely aware of it and mentally involved in it.
Hearing occurs on a subconscious level. That is, anything we hear to, we are only partially aware and not mentally involved in it. In other words, we sense or feel the sound but don't focus any attention on it.
13. When it happens?
Listening happens only when we take an active mental interest to understand the meaning or at least know some background of a type of sound we are hearing. It involves psyche i.e. a conscious mind.
Hearing is always happening even if you don't take any keen psychological interest. It is so since the sound (though unwanted) continuously fall on your ears and as a part of our bodily function we sense it and thus hear it unwillingly.
First example of listening and hearing:
- Imagine you are standing in a noisy station waiting for a train.
- While waiting, your ears are receiving a mix of many sounds simultaneously generated by people, passing trains' horns, announcement speakers fixed on the platform, old ceiling fans, carts carrying luggage, so on.
- You are not paying any focused attention to these blend of sounds except for regular announcements made on your train's arrival time.
- In such a case, you are listening only to train's arrival timing alerts and hearing to the cacophony of all other remaining sounds.
Second example of hearing and listening:
- Imagine a classroom scene where a history lecture is ongoing. In this class, there is a presence of ten students. Out of these students, one student named John is busy looking out of the classroom windows and not paying any sincere attention to what his teacher is teaching. It seems he is bored and lacks interest to learn at the moment.
- In this case, though John is physically present in the class in reality he is mentally absent. In other words, John is hearing each and every word uttered by his history teacher but not listening to the lecture.
- Since the remaining nine students, are understanding what their teacher is saying we can conclude that these students are actively listening and not hearing the discourse.
Note: With respect to the second example, I don't convey a message that history is a dull subject. Personally, I love learning world history and also have an interest in Ancient, Medieval, Modern Indian History.