The Difference Between Hearing And Listening

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:03 am

At several points during work this afternoon, I was thinking about my post and subsequent comments discussion about comprehensive listening, and I tried to put it into practice–as Pauline Oliveros puts it, “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear.” It was difficult for me to do this while doing something else–getting a drink from the water cooler in the kitchen, for example–because when I’m listening intently, I have a tendency to focus my eyes intensely (on nothing in particular) to minimize visual distractions. (For some reason I focus intensely on nothing rather than close my eyes; I’m not sure why that is.) So it was difficult to listen intently when I had to keep my eyes moving normally, as I tried to listen while I went about a normal task. But hard as it was, I did succeed briefly, and I was surprised by the difference. To quote Oliveros again, “hearing happens involuntarily,” while “listening is a voluntary process.” We get so used to hearing the sounds around us that we hardly ever listen in a comprehensive-listening sort of way, and when I tried the latter I could definitely tell the difference.

It’s hard to describe, but it felt as if I was listening to the sounds around me with my eyes closed, even though I was moving and had my eyes open. Listening with one’s eyes closed is slightly unsettling, because we’re so used to relying on our eyes, and it makes us focus more on the sounds we hear, because hearing becomes our primary sense when sight is removed. As I tried to listen comprehensively this afternoon, I heard the same sounds that I normally would hear but I heard them differently; somehow I was more detached and yet more focused.

It happened again on my drive home from work at a point or two; I stopped hearing and focused on comprehensive listening, and I experienced the same phenomenon of “hearing” differently. It was a remarkable sensation. I imagine Pauline would tell me I’m making progress.



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