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Listening : Modes and Strategies

Listening is largely, though not exclusively, a conscious activity.

A picture of Headphones by Sean Keenan

[dropcap style=”font-size:100px; color:#992211;”]’H[/dropcap]earing’ and ‘listening’, though often used interchangeably, are not synonymous.

One is primarily a passive activity, something you do even while sleeping and/or without conscious effort; the other is an activity that requires conscious effort and results from the deployment of various attentional strategies (whether one is aware of them as such or not).

Furthermore, hearing is largely monolithic in nature – consisting of a single general type or mode of activity, however complex it may be – while listening takes on various forms, modes, and strategies depending on the task at hand. Sorting out these various modes and strategies will be the primary topic of this post.

Hearing vs. Listening

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m considering hearing as a primarily physiological process: [quote]Listening is largely,

though not exclusively,

a conscious activity[/quote]it is passive, “bottom-up”, and consists of the chain ‘stimulus – transduction – perception’. Though to some degree affected by later processes of cognition and various levels of conscious processes, it is itself pre-conscious.

In this formulation, listening, in contrast, is as an attentional process: active, “top-down”, and concerned with the chain ‘cognition – memory – interpretation – interaction’. Built upon the process of hearing, listening moves beyond it to include short- and long-term memory along with interpretation. Listening is largely, though not exclusively, a conscious activity.

Moving beyond considerations of the ‘now’ towards both the past and the future, it involves various mechanisms of focusing one’s attention. It is these mechanisms – these modes and strategies – that we’ll now consider.

Listening Modes & Strategies

The listening modes & strategies involve, first and foremost, focus of attention. They are inherently part of what we refer to as perspective, our sense of foreground & background. As such, they function to effect selective filtering, separating stimuli into ‘figure’ & ‘ground’ elements or layers.

A common example of this sort of selective A picture of vibrations by University of Buffalofiltering (attentional focus) is the so-called ‘cocktail party effect’ where one is able to focus on a single speaker, perhaps from across the room, in a room full of people speaking simultaneously. One is able to listen attentively to a single person, despite being surrounded with a number of other speakers competing for your perceptual attention. This ability, beyond hearing, involves interpretation and decision, potentially leading to action.

There are a number of different listening modes and strategies that may be employed depending on context and task. Furthermore, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive: a listener often switches seamlessly from one mode/strategy to another, either consciously or otherwise. Finally, these modes and strategies are learned behaviors that can be improved with practice and experience.

Based on the writings of three authors in fields variously allied to sound and listening, I’ve assembled an overview of some of the main ideas regarding listening modes and strategies. Following this overview I’ll provide some comparative and contextual analysis of my own.

The books I’ve drawn on for this section are:

Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication, 2nd ed.; Greenwood Press, 2001
Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen; Columbia University Press, 1994
William Moylan, Understanding and Crafting the Mix: The Art of Recording, 2nd ed.; Focal Press, 2006

The backgrounds and purposes of these three books are rather disparate, despite the obvious overlap. As such, their respective takes on listening are complementary rather than redundant. They each introduce two or three categories of listening – what I’ve referred to as modes and strategies – and Moylan further elucidates some concepts that underlie his classifications, and – I would argue – those of the other authors, as well.

Barry Truax, Ch. 2 – “The Listener” in Acoustic Communication, 2nd ed.

Background Listening

Listening-In-SearchA picture of headphones

Listening-in-search is listening for something, actively seeking it out, either from within relative silence or amidst a whirl of competing sounds. According to Truax, this is listening “…at its most active, involving a conscious search […] for cues” [Truax, p. 22] He argues that here, “detail is of the greatest importance, and the ability to focus on one sound to the exclusion of others […] is central…” [Truax, p. 22]

Examples from everyday life:

An auto mechanic listening for the sound of an engine malfunction
Tapping the wall to look for a stud when hanging a picture


Listening-in-readiness is where something that is important or significant easily becomes the point of focus, even though you are not consciously listening for it. As such, it represents “…an intermediate kind of listening, that in which the attention is in readiness to receive significant information, but where the the focus of one’s attention is probably directed elsewhere.” [Truax, p. 22] This mode of listening “depends on associations built up over time, so that the sounds are familiar and can be readily identified even by “background” processing in the brain.” [Truax, p. 22] “Even when a sound is unfamiliar or unexpected, this type of listening  is ready to treat it as new information and evaluate its potential significance.” [Truax, p. 22]

Examples from everyday life:

Responding to a phone call or a text message alert while in the midst of a conversation
Awareness of traffic noises behind you as you walk across a busy intersection

Background Listening

Background listening occurs where a sound is not an object of attention but still within overall awareness; one is still able to report having heard it, if asked (i.e., it is not ignored). Background listening “…occurs when we are not listening for a particular sound, and when its occurrence has no special or immediate significance to us.” [Truax, p. 24] This usually occurs when the sound functions as a keynote sound which is a common, familiar, and expected part of the sound environment (soundscape).

Examples from everyday life:

Call to prayer from nearby mosques (for non-Muslims)
Ship horns and bells in a port city

Michel Chion, Ch. 2 – “The Three Listening Modes” in Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen

Causal Listening
Semantic Listening
Reduced Listening

Causal Listening

Listening in order to identify and/or gather information about a sound’s cause (source) is called causal listening. Chion remarks that this is the most common mode of listening. As its label implies, it is a primary mode of understanding the world around us. “When the cause is visible, sound can provide supplementary information about it…” [Chion, p. 25] “When we cannot see the sound’s cause, sound can constitute our principal source of information about it.” [Chion, p. 25]

Examples from everyday life:

An auto mechanic locating the source of a malfunction through listening for sound
Shaking a closed box to know whether it is full or empty, and what the contents are

Semantic Listening

Semantic listening is listening to understand and interpret the meaning of an encoded message, such as language, morse code, etc. It involves a learned association of sound patterns and meanings, and “…is entirely differential. A phoneme is listened to not strictly for its acoustical properties but as part of an entire system of oppositions and differences.” [Chion, p. 28]

Examples from everyday life:

Listening to a language you understand
Responding to (at least some of) the affective/emotional content of music with which you are familiar

Reduced Listening

In reduced listening the object of attention is the qualities or characteristics of the sound itself. “Reduced listening takes the sound – verbal, played on an instrument, noises, or whatever – as itself the object to be observed instead of as a vehicle for something else.” [Chion, p. 29] Further, Chion asserts that “…the descriptive inventory of a sound can not be compiled in a single hearing. One has to listen many times over, and because of this the sound must be fixed, recorded.” [Chion, p. 30] (This concept of reduced listening was first proposed by Pierre Schaeffer in his ‘Solfège de l’objet sonore‘ of 1967. See http://www.ears.dmu.ac.uk/spip.php?rubrique219 for more info and related links.)

Examples from everyday life:

Listening to sound art or acousmatic music
Listening to an interesting and unusual sound

William Moylan, Ch. 4 – “Listening and Evaluating Sound for the Audio Professional” in Understanding and Crafting the Mix: The Art of Recording

Critical Listening
Analytical Listening
The Sound Event and Sound Object
Perspective and Focus

Critical vs. Analytical Listening

The crucial difference between these two listening modes involves isolation vs. context. Critical listening focuses on the qualities of the sound itself, enabling an “…evaluation of sound quality out of context…” [Moylan, p. 90] In contrast, analytical listening probes the relationships between sounds for an “…evaluation of the content and the function of the sound in relation to the […] context in which it exists.” [Moylan, p. 90]

Examples from everyday life:

Critical Listening

Listening to the sound quality of a solo musical instrument or voice
Comparing the sound of two different speaker systems when purchasing a hi-fi system

Analytical Listening

Listening to the blend and balance of the different sections of an orchestra

Sound Event, Sound Object, Perspective, and Focus

In support of these listening modes, Moylan conceptualizes some of the elements involved: sound event, sound object, perspective, and focus. These concepts underlie, at least potentially, not just Moylan’s listening modes/strategies, but those of Truax and Chion, as well. Additionally, the sound object formulation is closely related to the objet sonore of Pierre Schaeffer.

A sound event refers to the shape or contour of parameters of sound over time. Moylan defines it as “the shape or design of the musical idea (or abstract sound) as it is experienced over time” and “…a complete musical idea (at any hierarchical level) that is perceived by the states and values of the artistic elements of sound.” [Moylan, p. 91] He further states that “the sound event is understood as unfolding over time, and is used in analytical listening observations.” [Moylan, p. 91]

By contrast, a sound object is defined as a sound or sounds, as a focal point for evaluation, considered outside of their original context: the object of critical listening. In this sense, a sound object is “…sound material out of its original musical context” and “…a conceptualization of a sound as existing out of time, and without relationship to another sound (except its possible direct comparison with another sound object).” [Moylan, p. 91]

Focus is the act of directing one’s attention to specific elements in the environment (visual, aural, etc.) in order to apprehend the intended (or desired) information. “Focus is the act of bringing some aspect of sound to the center of one’s attention.” [Moylan, p. 92]

Perspective is the hierarchical level at which one is focusing. “Perspective is the perception of the piece of music (or of sound quality) at a specific level of the structural hierarchy.” [Moylan, p. 92]

Conceptual comparisons

Following is a preliminary discussion of the conceptual similarities/overlaps and differences between the modes as proposed by Truax, Chion, and Moylan.

Listening-In-Search (Truax)
Reduced Listening (Chion/Schaeffer)
Critical Listening (Moylan)


Focus on individual sound element (object)
Evaluating aspects of sound quality
Out of context (selective focus)


Listening-in-search extracts meaning from sound based on what it tells one about the environment; the other two focus on the qualities of the sound itself, regardless of the possible meaning(s)
Listening-in-search is communicational while the others are critical/aesthetic in approach

Listening-In-Readiness (Truax)
Semantic Listening (Chion)


Both rely on previous experience, familiarity with, and (at least implicit) knowledge of the external referents (the ‘code’, or the association of the sound with an external object/idea of significance).


The sound event of semantic listening is already the point of focus, whereas in listening-in-readiness it is not the focal point until such time as this becomes necessary and/or advantageous.

Listening-In-Search (Truax)
Causal Listening (Chion)


Meaning is derived from what the sound reveals rather than what the sound is (i.e., its qualities)


Listening-in-search is less concerned with what caused a sound than what the sound tells the listener about the environment


Listening, as an intentional and participatory activity, involves attentional strategies – ways of managing the focus of attention – and can take a variety of modes and strategies. Specific listening modes and strategies are employed based on the context and task at hand. Listeners often change modes and strategies in a seamless manner, either through conscious effort, subconscious instinctual behavior, or prior learning. These modes and strategies are non-exclusive, and often overlap in various combinations.

Vibrations Image: Andrea Markelz and Katherine Niessen/University of Buffalo
Headphones Image: Sean Keenan


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