The Three Listening Modes

In this interesting article by Michel Chion [1] we can find the 3 main ways of listening.

What is a listening mode? Well, when we listen to some event we are likely to notice different things, and this changes from situation to situation. The way we perceive things at an exact moment is a way of listening. Even if the event is the same, the listening mode may be different because it depends on many other factors.

The first listening modality described in Chion’s article is causal listening.

This means listening to gather information about its cause.

This type of listening mode can be associated with multimodal perception, because we intend to try to discover the sound source thanks to our previous knowledge and current circumstances.

If the source is visible, the sound provides information about it, if it is not visible we would try to identify it with our knowledge or logical predictions, but out of context, it is difficult to clearly identify the source.

It is also associated with audio / video synchronization, which makes us believe that a certain sound is being produced by a certain source.

Even if we cannot identify the source of an event, for example a scraping noise, we are still able to follow is “evolution” = acceleration, slowdown… (changes in pressure, speed and amplitude).

The second is semantic listening, listening to interpret a language or a code.

It is a kind of linguistic listening, but it also applies to auditory icons and all other sounds that communicate a specific message.

This works in a complex way, as it is purely differential.

As mentioned in the text: “A phoneme is heard not strictly for its acoustic properties, but as part of a whole system of oppositions and differences. Thus, semantic listening ignores notable differences in pronunciation (and therefore in sound) if they are not differences pertinent to the language in question. Linguistic listening in both French and English, for example, is not sensitive to some very different pronunciations of the phoneme a”.

One listening mode does not exclude another. We can listen to a single event using, for example, causal and semantic modes at the same time.

The last is reduced listening, whose name is attributed to Pierre Schaeffer, French composer, engineer and writer, founder of the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (!).

This mode does not depend on the cause or meaning of the sounds, it just focuses on the traits themselves.

We can in some ways associate musical listening and analytical listening, even if more specific, because it tends to analyze only one characteristic of the sound (height, amplitude…).

You have to listen to the event many times to analyze all the characteristics of the sound, this means that the sound must be recorded.

For example, when we identify an interval between two notes (paying attention to the pitch) we are using reduce listening.

This mode has the advantage of “opening our ears and sharpening our listening skills”. The aesthetic value of sound is not only linked to its explanation, but also to its qualities, to its “personal vibration”.

Pierre Schaeffer thought that the acousmatic situation could favor this way of listening. The acousmatic situation is a situation in which the sound is heard without seeing the cause.

Yet the results of some tests have shown the opposite. The first thing we try to do is always try to understand the source of the sound and what that sound might be. It takes several plays of a single sound to allow us to gradually perceive its features without trying to understand the cause.

I would also like to mention a few other forms of listening that come to mind as I write this post.

The first is emotional / instinctive listening, which is not mentioned in Chion’s article, but is somehow associated with analytic listening, which brings us back to reduced listening. In reduced listening you should really focus on determining the sound traits, but in instinctive listening you can clearly and immediately understand the traits of sound that are important to you, due to the emotional characteristics, of course.

Then empathic listening, which applies when we listen to someone talking, and we try to understand their feeling and emotion.

I think our mindset also determines how we will understand information, plus if we are already prejudiced about what we will hear we would have some sort of selective listening. This is not good, because we will filter the information to reinforce our bias.


[1] M. Chion – The Three Listening Modes

[2] M. Chion – Guide des Objects Sonores

[3] Wikipedia – Pierre Schaeffer