The difference between Listen and Hear in English

Hear vs. Listen

What is the difference between “Hear” and “Listen (to)” in practice?

Understanding the English language encompasses not only expanding vocabulary but also grasping the nuances between seemingly similar verbs. Two such verbs that often cause confusion for English learners are “hear” and “listen.” While both relate to the act of perceiving sound, they are not interchangeable and have different grammatical structures and usage contexts. In this article, we will explore the differences between “hear” and “listen (to)” to guide you in their proper use. At the end of the article, test your knowledge by taking a 10-question practice test.

Hear – Passive Perception of Sound

The verb “hear” refers to the involuntary act of perceiving sound through the ear. When sound waves reach our ears, our brain processes them, and we “hear” them without any deliberate effort. “Hear” is thus considered a passive verb because it doesn’t require active participation or intention.

Grammatically, “hear” is often used in the simple aspect to describe the general ability to perceive sounds:

  • I can hear birds singing outside my window.
  • Did you hear the thunder last night?

In these sentences, the focus is on the natural ability to perceive the sounds, without any implication of deliberate attention.

“Hear” can also be used in continuous tenses, though less commonly, and usually when we are suddenly aware of a sound:

  • I am hearing a strange noise; what could it be?

Listen (to) – Active Process of Paying Attention

The verb “listen” carries a different connotation. To “listen” means to actively pay attention to sounds or what someone is saying. Unlike “hear,” “listen” is a voluntary action and requires a conscious effort. When we listen, we intentionally focus on the sound or message being conveyed.

Grammatically, “listen” is often followed by the preposition “to”:

  • Please listen to the instructions carefully.
  • She listens to classical music to relax.

Here, there is a clear objective to the act of listening, and it is an active process. “Listen” can be used in various aspects and tenses to describe ongoing or habitual actions:

  • He is listening to a podcast about history.
  • They often listen to the radio while having breakfast.

The differences between “hear” and “listen” with examples

Understanding the context in which to use “hear” or “listen (to)” can be further elucidated through examples:

  • During the concert, I could hear the music, but I couldn’t listen to the lyrics because of the crowd noise. (Here, “hear” indicates the presence of music, whereas “listen to” implies trying to pay attention to the specific words.)
  • I heard someone knocking at the door, but I didn’t listen to what they were saying because I was busy. (In this example, “heard” suggests an accidental perception of the knocking, whereas “listen to” would indicate paying attention to the person’s words deliberately.)

Common Expressions

There are also common expressions in English that differentiate “hear” and “listen”:

  • Hear about (to become aware of something): Have you heard about the new restaurant in town?
  • Listen to reason (to pay attention to logical arguments): I wish he would listen to reason and not make a hasty decision.

Review Before the Test

Before you attempt the test, remember these core principles to guide your choices:

  1. “Hear” is used when referring to the passive act of perceiving sounds, without the necessity of intention or focus.

  2. “Listen (to)” requires an intention, a conscious effort to focus on the sounds or conversations.

  3. “Hear” does not require the preposition “to,” but “listen” almost always comes with “to” when followed by an object.

  4. Pay attention to the construction of each sentence. Look for clues that suggest whether the act of perceiving sound is intentional (listen to) or unintentional (hear).

  5. Remember the continuous aspects: “listening” suggests an active, ongoing action, while “hearing” in a continuous form is less common and can suggest a process of becoming aware of a sound.

Test for understanding the difference between Hear or Listen 

Read the sentences and choose one of the correct answers to fill in the blanks. At the end of the test, click the “Submit Answers” button to check your answers.

I'm terribly sorry but I ....... what you said just now and I wonder if you could repeat it.

I ....... attentively to the lecture on philosophy but I still didn't understand much of it.

Can you ....... me all right over there because you are rather a long way away?

I ....... what you are saying but that still doesn't make me want to change my mind one little bit.

I ....... to the concert every Monday on the radio and I imagine I am there listening to it in person.

I should explain that he finds it very difficult to follow your conversation because he is very hard of ........

Now will you please ....... me and pay attention to what I'm saying because it's very important.

You've been making so much noise with your music that people at the far end of the road can ....... you.

He sometimes pretends he can't ....... a single word you are saying but all the time he's taking it all in.

I have been ....... strange stories about you recently but I do hope that there is no substance in them.


In summary, the main difference between “hear” and “listen (to)” lies in intentionality and attention. Use “hear” when referring to the natural and passive experience of perceiving sounds. Use “listen (to)” when there is active attention and effort to understand the sounds or speech. By distinguishing between the two, you can enhance your English comprehension and communication significantly. Remember that mastering such subtleties takes practice, so include listening and hearing exercises in your language learning routine to develop an ear for the right usage in varying contexts.

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