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New Definitions for "to Hear" and "to Listen"

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I am a voice teacher who specializes in correcting what is casually, though mistakenly, referred to as "tone deafness." I wrote a book on my process called Correcting Tone Deafness. My hope is that what I share in these pages will open a larger window on some of the most current, advanced practices in vocal training (I was going to write "vocal pedagogy," but I thought the rock stars would never return) and help voice teachers to correct off-pitch singing in their students.

In order to work with off-pitch singers, I had to develop new definitions for "to hear" and "to listen," terms often used interchangeably. I think you will find these beneficial. They allow me to make a case for eliminating the term "tone deafness" from the English lexicon forever, as "tone deafness" has nothing to do with an individual's ability to hear, but everything to do with her capacity for listening.

To here are my definitions:


-- Only to sense sound waves (air pressure waves).


-- To assign value to and make use of what one hears.

Right now you are hearing sounds all around you to which you are not listening. Perhaps the sound of a light humming, a heater vent blowing or traffic outside. Now that I've called your attention to them, you are both hearing and listening to them, which is to say, you are:

  1. sensing the sound waves produced by the vibrations of the light, heater vent or traffic;
  2. assigning value to those air pressure waves [you value them as examples to validate my point]; and
  3. making use of them [to validate my point].

So, 1. constitutes hearing; 2. and 3. constitute listening.

In my workshops, I've had students argue that because one isn't aware of a heater vent blowing in a room until his attention is called to it, he is not hearing it. But that would mean his ears and brain were selectively rejecting the vibrations of the heater vent, while allowing other vibrations to stimulate the ear drum. These definitions are critical to working with off-pitch singers effectively because they allow you to begin the work from the premise My student is able to hear everything I need him to hear. He is not tone deaf.

Paul Cuneo is the founder of NotToneDeaf.com and the author of Correcting Tone Deafness. This is the ONLY completely sensible approach I have ever encountered to resolving the problem and stigma of "Tone Deafness. -Jeannie Deva

Paul is also an actor and teaches Movement for Actors at the Stella Adler Studio, Los Angeles. He blogs on the topic of Performance and Movement for Actors at MovementalLA.com. This essay first published January 11, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.


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