Hearing vs Listening: meaning and significance

Written by: Mansi Samre || Graphics by: Mansi Samre || SEO by: Darshan

And in the English language, you have this wonderful difference between listening and hearing, and that you can hear without listening, and you can listen and not hear

-Daniel Barenboim


The above quote is from a famous pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim. Born in Argentina, he holds citizenship for four countries and has worked all around the globe.  During his time on Reith lecture on BBC radio, he made this distinction between hearing and listening skills. He was agonized by the brains’ ability to accept information from our ears while avoiding processing it with attention.

He believed because of this phenomenon classical music has been anesthetized by us. So let’s dive deeper into this phenomenon to understand the difference between hearing and listening.

Listening skills

What does hearing mean?

Hearing is one out of the six senses that we possess. Our ears act as a medium through which sound waves are absorbed and passed to our brain. It refers to the involuntary brain activity that takes place when we hear a sound that requires no effort. During hearing, vibrations are detected by our ears that are then converted into nerve impulses and sent to the brain. It is so instinctive that we may not even realize that we are doing it.

For example, we are so habituated to the sound of airplanes, the sound of traffic, the rattling of pots and pans, or our phone notifications that we have trained our brains to pay no attention to them. Hearing occurs even when we are asleep, where our ears process the vibrations reaching them, and pass them to the brain, but the brain does not always react.


What does listening mean? || Listening Skills

Listening, on the other hand, requires more than just our sense of hearing. It is the ability to understand and process the meaning of the vibrations received by our ears. It requires your concentration and attention and therefore is more demanding than hearing. It requires making use of verbal and normal cues and therefore requires a conscious effort from the listener. Simply put, Listening is having an understanding of what someone said to you.


There are two types of listening. Namely active and passive. Active Listening requires a person to be alert and attentive, and provide feedback. Active Listening is a crucial element that makes our conversations more meaningful. Whereas in Passive Listening a person is paying attention to the conversation but isn’t trying to provide feedback. This is not a great way to communicate with people. An example would be a person who isn’t trying to provide any feedback at work or in school.


Fundamental differences between hearing and listening:






1. Involuntary brain activity that takes place when we hear a sound. 1. Requires a conscious effort from the listener.
2. It is primary and constant. It takes place even when we are not paying continuous attention.



2. It is a temporary process. You cannot listen for hours on end.
3. It is a physiological act. 3. It is a psychological act.
4. Only the sense of hearing is involved. 4. Other senses are also involved along with hearing.
5. The brain does not interpret any signals in the hearing process. It is a passive bodily process. 5. The brain has to interpret signals from our senses for listening. It is an active mental process.



6. It is an ability we are born with. Lack of hearing is referred to as a disability called deafness. 6. It is not something we are born with. It is a skill that we learn and get better at over the time.



7. While hearing, we are not in control of the sounds we sense. 7. While listening, we are aware of the speaker. We try to listen with our full concentration and try to make sense of it.





 Importance of hearing and listening

While hearing and listening are different from each other both of them play a vital role in our lives. Hearing is one of the six senses in the human body and loss of hearing can raise multiple problems in an individual’s life. It can result in an individual not being able to get adequate education and job opportunities due to compromised communication skills. Difficulty in communicating can also lead to social withdrawals which in turn takes an emotional toll on the individuals. A lot of them may suffer from low self-esteem and confidence issues. Impaired hearing can cause tremendous stress on our brain which can over time make us prone to diseases like dementia, upset stomach, muscle tension, anxiety, diarrhea, constipation, lack of focus, irritability, etc. It is also an important element of survival. Sound is often the first source of information. Missing out on important stimuli can lead us into many dangerous situations.


Listening should not be taken for granted either. Listening has played a very important part in the history of humankind. Stories were passed from generation to generation through a combination of auditory and visual language. The history we know today wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for elders of the previous generations who went through the trouble of reciting stories and folktales and an audience who was ready and willing to listen.

Of course, in today’s day and age, passing stories and folklore through spoken word is no longer needed but listening still remains as important as it was earlier. Listening helps you become a better student, worker, or simply a friend. You are able to identify and process all the stimuli and make complex meanings out of them. You can give better feedback and form meaningful relationships with your peers. Carefully listening can help you become a better public speaker. When you listen to others speak, you pick up on the stylistic components that work and do not work for them. You can analyze how they present information and put forward their arguments. This in turn helps you transform your speeches and effectively convey information.



To conclude, although hearing and listening are not alike, they still go hand in hand. You cannot listen without hearing first therefore both of them continue to remain important parts of our everyday life and should not be taken for granted.



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