Have you ever thought about the difference between the words ‘Listening’ vs. ‘Hearing’? For me, listening involves an active participation or engagement in what I’m listening to, whether it is a lecture, recorded music, live music, an audio book etc.
Perhaps you heard a noise that that caught your attention and you’re listening to trying to ‘hear’ it more clearly (which is a different kind of active engagement). The definition of ‘hearing’ could also include that very human trait of gossip, or passing on information that you ‘heard’ but may or may not be backed up by proof, further investigation, etc. ‘Did you hear?’ vs. ‘Did you know?’
So, ‘Hearing’ and ‘Listening’ are both active words, but in somewhat different ways.
Now, if you enjoy music as much as I do, listening to music is not necessarily a ‘passive’ activity. Sometimes it enhances or accompanies an activity I’m already doing – for example, I like to have renaissance or baroque choral music playing when I write. I find the melodies interesting and they stimulate my brain without interrupting or grabbing my attention writing.
When I go to a concert of the same style of music, I am VERY actively listening, and not at all interested in doing another activity.
But what I am I listening to? I follow different melodies in the music, I try to find the thread of specific vocal lines and follow them, then listen to and hear how the notes work together to create an engaging piece of music.
Ah, here is that word ‘hear’ again. Hearing and listening then appear to go together – you can’t listen to something without hearing it first, but you can hear something without necessarily first actively listening.
Why is it you can damage your ‘hearing’ but not your ‘listening’? Hearing perahps has a more physical association with the biological act of taking in sound vibrations in the ear and interpreting them. To listen to something, you have to HEAR it first, then make a decision to actively engage in and be intellectually involved in what you are hearing.
However, you can first hear music, listen to and process it, then all of a sudden, HEAR an element in the texture that you never noticed before. Another way to put it might be that you noticed something new to you in the music.
When I teach my students, I am teaching them how to sing, but I am also teaching them how to hear, and how to listen. Sometimes I ask them to plug their ears so they hear their voice differently, and also so they don’t ‘listen’ to the exterior feedback their ears are giving them about their voice.
How about listening to music with lyrics as opposed to listening to music without? With the introduction of a language component I feel there is a difference in how actively we engage with the music – but that is the subject for another blog post!
The next time you are listening to music and/or doing an activity, stop for a moment and define for yourself what ‘listening’ is vs. what ‘hearing’ is. You will have a better understanding of how music works, how your brain processes music, and how you can be a better musician overall.
In the words of Michael McMahon, one of my coaches at McGill, “Go and have a listening experience!”