Listening is often confused with hearing. While hearing is a process that can be scientifically explained, listening is a neurological cognitive regarding the processing of auditory stimuli received by the auditory system.
Roland Barthes, a linguist, distinguishes between hearing and listening, stating, "Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act." Barthes also states that "whereas for centuries listening could be defined as an intentional act of audition...today it is granted the power (and virtually the function) of playing over unknown spaces " including unconscious forms. Hearing is always occurring, most of the time subconsciously. Listening is the interpretative action taken by the listener in order to understand and potentially make meaning out of the sound waves. Listening can be understood on three levels: alerting, deciphering, and an understanding of how the sound is produced and how the sound affects the listener.
Alerting, the first level, does nothing to distinguish human from animal. At the alerting level one merely picks up on certain environmental sound cues. While discussing this level, Barthes mentions the idea of territory being demarcated by sounds. This is best explained using the example of one's home. One's home, for instance, has certain sounds associated with it that make it familiar and comfortable. An intrusion sound (e.g. a squeaking door or floorboard, a breaking window) alerts the dweller of the home to the potential danger.
In a metaphorical way, deciphering, the second level, is to listening what digestion is to eating. An example of this level is that of a child waiting for the sound of his mother's return home. In this scenario the child is waiting to pick up on sound cues (e.g. jingling keys, the turn of the doorknob, etc.) that will mark his mother's approach.
Understanding, the third level of listening, means knowing how what one says will affect another. This sort of listening is important in psychoanalysis. Barthes states that the psychoanalyst must turn off their judgement while listening to the analysand in order to communicate with their patient's unconscious in an unbiased fashion.
However, in contrast to the distinct levels of listening listed above, it must be understood that they all function within the same plane, and sometimes all at once. Specifically the second and third levels, which overlap vastly, can be intertwined in that obtaining, understanding and deriving meaning are part of the same process. In that the child, upon hearing the doorknob turn (obtaining), can almost automatically assume that someone is at the door (deriving meaning).
Listening differs from obeying. Parents may commonly conflate the two, by telling a disobedient child that he "didn't listen to me". However, a person who receives and understands information or an instruction, and then chooses not to comply with it or to agree to it, has listened to the speaker, even though the result is not what the speaker wanted.
- Barthes, Roland (1985). The Responsibility of Forms. New York Hill and Wang.
- Barthes, Roland (1985). In the Responsibility of Forms. New York Hill and Wang.
- Purdy, Michael and Deborah Borisoff, eds. (1997) Listening in Everyday Life: A Personal and Professional Approach. University Press of America. ISBN 9780761804611. p. 5–6.
- (French) Fitzpatrick, Élizabeth M. Apprendre à écouter et à parler. University of Ottawa Press, 2013. Available at
- Mailman, Joshua B. "Seven Metaphors for (Music) Listening: DRAMaTIC" in Journal of Sonic Studies v.2.