The word “hear” recurs throughout the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology of “listen,” though the terms never stand in a synonymous, one-to-one relation to each other. When a person listens, he or she never simply hears. When a person listens, he or she “hear[s] attentively,” “make[s] an effort to hear something”; when one hears a broadcast, e.g. adjusts a radio’s volume knob to make the broadcast audible, one does so in order to listen to it.1 These examples demonstrate how distinctions between hearing and listening tend to center on two assumptions. First, that listening is selective whereas hearing is non-selective; because most city-dwellers cannot but hear the din of the city, they must make an effort to attend selectively to sounds within that din (see noise). Second, that hearing is a prerequisite for listening; one can only listen to what one hears, i.e. to what is audible in the first place.

Why do these distinctions between hearing and listening matter for media studies?

For one thing, their popular usage clues us in to vernacular ways that we view our encounters with media. For instance, as hinted at above, we’re more inclined to say “listen to the radio” than we are to say “hear the radio,” unless a basic level of audibility is in question. Indeed, the latter distinction has been so ingrained as to motivate some of the critical insights and interventions made by seminal theories of media. Horkheimer and Adorno, for example, argue that the mass audibility of Nazi radio broadcasts, their being heard everywhere, weakens people’s ability to listen to those broadcasts attentively and critically: “The metaphysical charisma of the Führer invented by the sociology of religion has finally turned out to be no more than the omnipresence of his speeches on the radio . . . The gigantic fact that the speech penetrates everywhere replaces its content . . . No listener can grasp its true meaning any longer, while the Führer’s speech is lies anyway.”2 McLuhan takes the distinction between audibility and listenership in another direction. He suggests that radio couches its mass audibility in its alluring mode of listenership, whereby the encounter between the auditor and the broadcast evokes the image of one friend listening to the direct address of another: “Radio is provided with its cloak of invisibility, like any other medium. It comes to us with person-to-person directness that is private and intimate, while in more urgent fact, it is really a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords.”3

If, for McLuhan, radio’s mode of listenership, its seeming “person-to-person directness,” conceals the more pressing reality of radio’s ubiquitous audibility, then for Bela Balazs, the sound film carries the inverse potential to effect a mode of listenership that brings the audible world back into focus:

When the director will be able to lead our ear as he could once already lead our eye in the silent film and by means of such guidance along a series of close-ups will be able to emphasize, separate and bring into relation with each other the sounds of life as he has done with its sights, then the rattle and clatter of life will no longer overwhelm us in a lifeless chaos of sound. The sound film will intervene in this chaos of sound, form it and interpret it and then it will again be man himself who speaks to us from the sound screen.4

The image of a direct address between director and audience—“it will again be man himself who speaks to us from the sound screen”—evokes the listenership that McLuhan ascribes to radio, i.e. its “person-to-person directness.” But for Balazs, contrary to McLuhan, the directness and directedness of listening reveal more than they conceal. Balazs has in mind a retraining of the ear, a retooling of its capacity for sound selectivity and hierarchization. Instead of hearing a homogenous mass of sound, we might learn to listen for heterogeneity, to direct our attention towards discrete sound forms, in a manner similar to how we recognize and differentiate between visual forms.

The ear can be an acutely perceptive organ, but it is also prone to misrecognition (see ear). In a statement that complicates Balazs’s suggestion that recorded filmic sound has the potential to enhance and retool our aural encounters with reality, Rick Altman notes that “the process of selective auditory attention is far more difficult when we are listening to recorded material. Whereas live sound provides an extraordinary number of variables, each permitting and promoting selective attention, recorded sound folds most of those variables into a single, undifferentiated source.”5 In other words, the relationship between listening (i.e. “selective auditory attention”) and hearing in the context of film audienceship differs from the relationship between listening and hearing in the context of live, non-recorded soundscapes.

The issue of filmic sound selectivity and its relation to hearing stirred debates between clashing practical approaches to film sound well into the 1930s. One approach, espoused primarily by sound technicians, latched onto an ideal of perceptual fidelity. According to this ideal, the reproduction of a given sound event should match the spatial signature and material qualities of the pro-phonographic sound as closely as possible. The intended auditory effect is that of a soundscape recorded in its totality rather than a selection of a few of the most spatially indicative or narratively significant sounds, recorded in separate takes and woven together during post-production. A contrary approach, espoused mainly by Hollywood directors, producers, and cinematographers, privileged the selection of a few legible sounds, often those with narrative significance, over exact perceptual fidelity.6 At the risk of oversimplification, one could associate the former approach with the passivity and non-selectivity of hearing and the latter approach with the activity and selectivity of listening. Indeed, as James Lastra puts it, eventually the latter approach subsumed the former approach, the result being that, with respect to film sound practice, “[t]he ear that simply ‘hears’ has been replaced by the ear that listens selectively and that experiences space as a disjunctive and hierarchically ordered series of ‘layers’.”7

Clearly, the relation of listening to hearing underpins important vernacular, theoretical, and practical encounters with media. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the audibility and ubiquity of the radio broadcast works against attentive listening to its content. For McLuhan, something like the inverse is true: the alluring intimacy of radio listenership keeps us glued to the content so that we miss the form, i.e. the message (the ubiquitous audibility) of the medium itself. For Balazs, film sound has the potential to attune our ears to the selection of sound forms around us. Among practitioners of film sound, the activation of such potential has been a point of debate and contestation, not least because the non-selectivity and seeming passivity of hearing figure heavily in valorizations of sonic fidelity.

While it is tempting to reduce the above distinction between selectivity (listening) and non-selectivity (hearing) to a distinction between activity and passivity, we should avoid doing so uncritically. Jonathan Sterne argues that, while the quality of being “a directed, learned activity” makes listening stand out against hearing, “the physiological notion of hearing as a pure capacity is not quite passive—receptive would be a more accurate adjective.”8 Sterne defines the distinction between listening and hearing as between activity and capacity. As a physiological capacity, hearing involves being receptive and open to audition (an openness controllable to some degree by the auditor) rather than being at the mercy of the audible world. Indeed, the act of listening to music through headphones involves “creat[ing] a private acoustic space by shutting out room noise and by keeping the radio sound out of the room.”9 Hearing qua aural receptivity may very well entail a passive relation to media, but it may also, as in the case of headphones, involve a deliberate alteration of audibility by means of media.

If hearing is less about passivity than it is about receptivity, then what about listening? Put another way: does the importance of receptivity to the whole human body bring into focus how listening might be an embodied activity, i.e. an activity made possible in the first place by interwoven modes of receptivity (aural, tactile, visual, etc.)? With similar questions in mind, Ingrid Monson notes that learning to play an instrument interweaves the senses:

The activity of practicing—mastering scales, rhythms, harmony, patterns, repertory, and style by repeating passages over and over again—is simply part of what it is to be a musician. Once musicians have this musical knowledge in their fingers (and ears), they may no longer have to think consciously about the things they drilled into their bodies through practicing. Thus mimesis and repetition—of live or recorded sources—lead to embodied knowledge and the freeing of the conscious mind for creative aesthetic discovery and expression.10

Tactile receptivity and motoric repetition, in combination with repeated acts of listening and notation-reading, mediate musical knowledge on tactile, visual, and aural levels.

The plasticity and multi-sensory dimensionality of the distinction between listening and hearing bolster the claim that, while media may not literally reconfigure our senses, they do nevertheless direct our senses in diverse and operative ways. As Lastra puts it, with respect to the debates between practitioners of film sound, “while hearing may not have changed, the dominant and regulative mode of listening had.”11


1 “Listen,” The Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, 2008), (accessed January 27, 2008) (emphasis added).

2 Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1979), 20-21.

3 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), 302.

4 Bela Balazs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art (New York: Dover, 1970), 199.

5 Rick Altman, “Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound,” in Rick Altman, ed., Sound Theory/ Sound Practice (New York: Routledge, 1992), 29.

6 James Lastra, Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 181.

7 Ibid., 202-3 (emphasis added).

8 Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003), 19; 100 (emphasis in original).

9 Ibid., 87.

10 Ingrid Monson, “Hearing, Seeing, and Perceptual Agency,” Critical Inquiry 34.2 (2008), S38.

11 Lastra, 184 (emphasis in original).


Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. London: Verso, 1979. 120-67.

Altman, Rick, ed. Sound Theory/Sound Practice. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Balasz, B. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art. New York: Dover, 1970.

Belton, John and Elisabeth Weis, eds. Film Sound: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Lastra, James. Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1964. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.

Monson, Ingrid. “Hearing, Seeing, and Perceptual Agency.” Critical Inquiry 34.2 (Winter 2008): S36-S58.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past. Duke University Press: Durham & London, 2003.