Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hearing vs. Listening to Music: Response to Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy (1997)

 What does it mean to listen to music versus to hear it?  More specifically, what are the inherent neurological and psychological differences between the acts which we call "hearing" versus that which we call "listening"?  Jourdain briefly addresses this question in a short section called “Hearing and Listening” (pp. 245-249), but his explanation of the two auditory tasks leaves much to be desired. 
Jourdain first explains that while the term "hearing" might suggest a passive absorbance of sonic information (performed by the brain stem), "listening" seems to implicate an active element, such as intent or motive (done with the cerebral cortex) (p. 246).  This is much like looking versus seeing, and being touched versus touching.  At the very basic level of hearing, auditory processing is entirely unconscious and every part of a sound is presumably given equal weight.  Sounds that are more complex and multifaceted require our attention, mental effort, and a feedback loop involving the cerebral cortex in order to successfully “listen” to them, according to Jourdain.  By listening, we come to anticipate, simplify, organize, and enjoy a variety of music. 
His argument seems to unfold quite adequately until pp. 246-247, when he writes:
“There appears to be no clear demarcation between passive, automatic processing of sound of the kind typified by the brain stem, and the active, predictive processing of the cortex.  This is because many operations of auditory cortex seem to be just as automatic and unconscious as in lower-brain structures.”
So now—after assigning the acts of hearing and listening to the brain stem and cerebral cortex, respectively—he problematizes his own argument by distinguishing between “automatic” and “manual” auditory acts within higher brain function.  If the auditory cortex can act just as automatically and unconsciously as the lower-brain structures, then how are some of its processes not considered as plain “hearing”?
          Clearly, these ideas need further development.  Perhaps the answer lies in psychology or phenomenology.  Does listening involve understanding?  Do we have to make a conscious effort to really listen?  What about attention, salience, and habituation to sound?  And finally, have there been any neurological findings between passive/automatic hearing and active/manual listening since Jourdain’s book was written almost 20 years ago?
          Many recent studies seem to focus on the role of attention in listening.  Even if a higher-level process is automatic, it would still require initial attentiveness to the sound which caused it.  In a study published the same year as Jourdain’s book, Ward investigated the effect of cue tones (which cause involuntary orienting of attention) on response time and accuracy for an auditory intensity discrimination task (1997).  When participants heard a cue tone their attention was automatically directed towards the cue’s frequency region, resulting in faster recognition and more accurate processing of the subsequent target tone when it had occurred at the same frequency (versus at a different frequency).  Infants with reduced attention to speech after cochlear implants suffer greatly during early speech perception development, causing difficulty in language acquisition and an eventual lag behind their normal-hearing counterparts.  This is because deaf infants who receive cochlear implants have initially developed without sound, and even though their auditory cortex might function as well as a normal-hearing child’s, they fail to automatically attend to sound the way other infants do (Houston & Bergeson 2014).  However, salience and the physical aptitude for hearing can also greatly help the process of listening.  People with unilateral conductive hearing impairment fixed by reconstructive ear surgery experience improved hearing thresholds, leading to significantly better speech recognition in situations with background noise due to their newly found binaural hearing (Persson et al. 2001).
Furthermore, in terms of music listening, focus of attention is possibly the most important key to actively “participate” in meaningful music understanding.  Our personal experience with a musical style develops our attentional habits towards it (Dowling 2012).  And because autonomous listening is in itself a relatively rare occurrence (Herbert 2011), Madsen & Geringer report that attentiveness while listening to music is vital for understanding its distinguishing elements and attributes, increasing “aesthetic” sensitivity, and aiding overall musical understanding and enjoyment (2000). Without this focus of auditory attention, and often due to particular sonic qualities of the music itself, certain sounds can fade into the background of our overwhelmed milieu of sensory stimuli. 
Attention is also guided by a constant renewal of interest and change.  With repeated stimulation and when possessing no known value or meaning, sounds run the risk of being completely ignored by our brains.  In a phenomenon called habituation, the longer the same auditory neurons are stimulated without any renewal of attention to a particular sound, the less they respond to that sound (Armony & LeDoux 2012).  So does that mean that habituation to sound—meaning to still technically hear it with our ears, but to not react to it with our primary auditory neurons—the opposite of attentive listening?  We must first hear a salient sound before we can listen to it, and responses are only normal to novel sounds (Weinberger 2012).  So perhaps instead of the question being "If a tree falls in the woods, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?", it should really be: "If a tree falls in the woods, after enough previously fallen trees habituated our ears to the sound of trees falling, does it still make a sound?"
Jourdain points out that because music is so abundant in our everyday lives—at home or at work, in movies and television, in public places, at restaurants and stores, even elevators—it is not usually something we listen to for pleasure, but instead out of necessity (238).  Moreover, he insists that rarely do people ever sit down with the sole purpose of listening to music, i.e. not just using it as background noise.  This is a matter of habituation to music, and although we might still continue hearing that Best Of Michael Bublé CD at the chiropractor’s office, we’ve stopped listening to it after the first track.  Of course, certain music is designed to fade into the background, to be simply heard and not listened to, such as: ambient music for creating a particular atmosphere; minimalistic music for club dancing; Lee Bartel's SonicAid albums for aiding sleep, concentration, relaxation, etc.; and the popular Focus@Will website with pre-selected music designed to help with work and study focusing.
In the years since Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, studies in auditory organization have shown that primary stages of auditory analysis and low-level segregation mechanisms operate independently from attention (Dyson 2012).  But in selective listening studies in regards to attention it is still unclear what participants unconsciously hear and to what extent they can “sneak a listen” to the supposedly ignored sounds (Carlyon 2004).  Even a brief moment of responsiveness to a previously unattended stimulus can launch the mechanism for listening.  “Therefore, while it is possible to manipulate relatively successfully the levels of attention during active tasks, it may be more difficult to draw clear distinctions between active and passive conditions.” (Dyson 2012).
Perhaps the dichotomy of hearing and listening is more of a continuum than a toggle switch; as sounds become salient we listen, and as our ears habituate to the stimuli the sounds gradually fall into the unconsciously heard but unperceived background.

Armony, J., & LeDoux, J. (2012). Emotional responses to auditory stimuli. Oxford Handbooks Online. Retrieved 9 Nov. 2014, from
Carlyon, R. P. (2004). How the brain separates sound. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 1:465–71.
Dowling, W. (2012). Music perception. Oxford Handbooks Online. Retrieved 9 Nov. 2014, from
Dyson, B. (2012). Auditory organization. Oxford Handbooks Online. Retrieved 9 Nov. 2014, from
Herbert, R. (2011). Consciousness and everyday music listening: Trancing, dissociation, and absorption. In D. Clarke, & E. Clarke (Eds.), Music and consciousness: Philosophical, psychological, and cultural perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press.
Houston, D. M., & Bergeson, T. R. (2014). Hearing versus listening: Attention to speech and its role in language acquisition in deaf infants with cochlear implants. Lingua, 139(Complete), 10-25. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2013.08.001
Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain, and ecstasy: How music captures our imagination. New York: W. Morrow.
Madsen, C. K., & Geringer, J. M. (2000). A focus of attention model for meaningful listening. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, (147, The 18th International Society for Music Education ISME Research Seminar), 103-108.
Persson, P., Harder, H., Arlinger, S., & Magnuson, B. (2001). Speech recognition in background noise: Monaural versus binaural listening conditions in normal-hearing patients. Otology & Neurotology: Official Publication of the American Otological Society, American Neurotology Society [and] European Academy of Otology and Neurotology, 22(5), 625-630.
Spence, C., & Santangelo, V. (2012). Auditory attention. Oxford Handbooks Online. Retrieved 9 Nov. 2014, from
Ward, L. M. (1997). Involuntary listening aids hearing. Psychological Science, 8(2), 112-118.
Weinberger, N. (2012). The cognitive auditory cortex. Oxford Handbooks Online. Retrieved 9 Nov. 2014, from

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