Hearing does not equal Listening

In the July 8, 2007 New York Times Book Review, Haruki Murakami writes in his essay, Jazz Messenger,

Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. … Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music.

Murakami goes on to quote Thelonious Monk who, when discussing how he gets special sounds out of the piano, said

When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!

The essay fueled my thinking about how we listen and how we process what we hear. Listening is not always a simple activity. To be sure, if your hearing functions properly, it is easier to hear than to listen, for listening requires attentiveness, and attentiveness usually requires a level of interest or need. Hearing is a physical act; listening is a cognitive one.

Turns out there is even an International Listening Association created “to promote the study, development, and teaching of effective listening in all settings.” And it may come as no surprise that in some schools students are taught how to listen. The University of Minnesota Duluth has a page on Listening Skills, and Study Guides and Strategies provides an interactive guide to Active Listening.

My favorite site about sound, though, is Listen: Making Sense of Sound, part of the Exploratorium online. If you aren’t familiar with it, the Exploratorium is “the museum of science, art and human perception” located in San Francisco, California. Their online exhibit contains a slew of well-prepared, informative yet entertaining interactive activities designed to get you thinking about the act of listening – not just to other people but also to your environment, which contains wondrous sounds of its own.


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