Listen/Hear

What’s the difference between listen and hear?

Listen and hear have similar meanings but we use them differently. The easiest way to remember the difference is to think of listen as active and hear as passive. Read on for a more detailed explanation of the differences between listen and hear. Once you’ve learned to use these tricky verbs correctly, test out your knowledge in the free exercises!

Example

Can you hear Laura practising the flute? She’s getting better every day.

When she first started learning, she was terrible. We could hear her practising every day, and we tried not to listen to her.

These days she’s very good and we quite enjoy listening to her play.

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Hear

  • hear = to perceive sound or noise using your ears
Example:
Can you hear Laura practising the flute?

Hear is passive, we can hear something without wanting, or choosing to.

  • use hear to talk about a complete piece of music, radio programme, speech etc. that you have listened to (in the past)
Example:
I heard her playing the flute on the radio last week.
  • use can + hear to express that you hear something at the moment of speaking. We do not use the progressive form (-ing) with hear.
Example:
I am hearing strange noises.
I can hear strange noises.

Listen

  • listen to = actively pay attention to sound or noise
Example:
We quite enjoy listening to her play.

Listen to is active. We only listen to things that we choose, or want to pay attention to.

  • use listen to to talk about actions that are in progress or not complete
Example:
I am listening to her playing the flute on the radio.
  • don’t use to when there is no object
Example:
When Laura plays the flute, we don’t listen.
(but: We don’t listen to Laura playing the flute.)

Compare: listen vs. hear

Take a look at the following sentences for a clear comparison of the difference between listen and hear:

Compare:
Person A: You’re not listening to me when I talk!
Person B: I am listening to you, but I can’t hear you! The radio is too loud.

Although Person B is actively focusing their hearing on Person A, they cannot help passively taking in the noise of the radio.