Sunday musings on listening

I was thinking about #MUS654 Session 1 Task 1, these musings are about the difference between listening to something and reading that same material. Why is it so different? Is it really different? Let’s consider the different situations. (Featured image CC BY by Cristina L.F.)

Sound is all around us. It is something that we are immersed in and it cannot easily be shut out. Thinking about listening to a given speech or programme only requires us to be in the presence of the sound, and then to select and prioritise those sounds. As I type about this, I am suddenly aware of the competing sounds around me: footsteps, the neighbour’s TV through the wall, the creak of a shutting window, the tappity-tap of my typing, the sound of my own breath, the electricity, there are so many sounds all around. There is something called the ‘cocktail effect’ where if two people are talking to you at the same time, you don’t really listen to both of them, but the brain prioritises one at a time – as if selecting a voice to concentrate on in a noisy party… thus the name. People can of course choose not to focus and not to listen carefully, but not to hear- that is difficult to do.

Reading however is different altogether. I can be in the presence of a book and not read it. I can shut my eyes and not read it. It can be on the bookshelf and it is not actively pressing its words onto my conscious awareness, as sound does. Maybe some of that listening awareness comes from being a musician, but I think we all have it. With reading, it is notably more challenging, although interestingly, some people have a capacity to be expert at it. I am no expert on the neurological cognitive function of linguistic decoding differences between reading and listening, but I did find a very interesting article on it.

“The apparent naturalness of listening does not mean that it is in all respects a more efficient process. Though many people find reading difficult, there are a few readers who are very proficient: in fact, they read at rates well over 2,000 words per minute with complete comprehension. Listening is always a slower process: even when speech is artificially speeded up in a way which preserves frequency relationships, 400 words per minute is about the maximum possible rate (Orr et al., 1965). It has often been suggested (e.g., Bever and Bower, 1966) that high-speed readers are somehow able to go directly to a deep level of language, omitting the intermediate stages of processing to which other readers and all listeners must presumably have recourse.”

From p.25 of ‘Reading, the Linguistic Processes, and Linguistic Awareness’ by Ignatius Mattingly

Overall the article talks about the naturalness of listening and learning language, how most languages are spoken and far fewer are written, and how there are differences in the process – well beyond the medium through which we ‘take in’ the information.  At the very end of the article the author says:

“Reading is seen not as a parallel activity in the visual mode to speech perception in the auditory mode: there are differences between the two activities which cannot be explained in terms of the difference of modality. They can be explained only if we regard reading as a deliberately acquired, language-based skill, dependent upon the speaker-hearer’s aware- ness of certain aspects of primary linguistic activity. By virtue of this linguistic awareness, written text initiates the synthetic linguistic process common to both reading and speech, enabling the reader to get the writer’s message and so to recognize what has been written.”

They are different. In recognising differences in processes we can begin more clearly to understand how we work and learn, and that will hopefully enable us to be better teachers.


Image CC BY by photosteve101

p.s. I haven’t forgotten about the reveal of the answer to yesterday’s soundscape, I’m waiting for a few more people to hopefully have a go at identifying it and either commenting or tweeting with the tag before giving out the answer. Sorry to make you wait!


  1. Kenn

    Of late, the majority of my book consumption has been via audible as i go for walks. The solitude allows me to immerse myself in the content in ways that are less likely while reading. I am affected differently by the same passage read versus read to me. Again, an interesting post.

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