Hear Vs. Listen – What’s the difference? (21 REAL examples)


I have been teaching English as a second language since 2006. I’ve been asked many great questions by my students in that time. Including this one:

Hear Vs. Listen What’s the difference?

Here is a quick way to understand the difference that I teach my students.

HEAR is used when sounds come to our ears automatically. We don’t try to catch the sounds, it just happens.

“Did you hear that noise?”

LISTEN is used when we focus our attention on sounds around us. We are trying to catch the sounds.

“I like to listen to music after work.”

HEAR – meaning and example sentences

Hear Vs Listen HEAR

hear verb to be aware of sounds with your ears LINK

HEAR – Verb tenses (conjugation)

InfinitiveTO HEAR

  • I like to hear the birds singing outside my window in the morning 

Present simpleHEAR

  • Did you hear that? I think something’s in that bush. 

Present simple Third-person singularHEARS

  • My dog’s ears are very sensitive. He hears every little sound around him. 

Past simpleHEARD

  • My boss really yelled at me today. We were in his office but I’m sure the whole office heard him shouting. 

Past participleHEARD

  • My car engine is making a strange sound that I haven’t heard before. 

[Haven’t heard is the perfect tense. HAVE + the past participle. Learn more about perfect tense grammar HERE]

* This meaning of HEAR is not used in the continuous tense. The simple present tense talks about what is happening now.

  • I hear the wind blowing outside.

We don’t say:

I’m hearing the wind blowing outside.

LISTEN – meaning and example sentences

Hear Vs Listen LISTEN

listen verb to pay attention to somebody/something that you can hear LINK

LISTEN – Verb tenses (conjugation)

Infinitive TO LISTEN

  • The teacher talks fast so you really have to listen. 

Present simpleLISTEN

  • If you listen carefully you can hear train whistles in the distance. 

Present simple Third-person singularLISTENS

  • Jerry is a liar, no one listens to him.

Past simpleLISTENED

  • If you listen to my instructions you wouldn’t have made this mistake. 

Past participleLISTENED

  • Larry loves this album. He has listened to it more than 50 times .

[Has listened is the perfect tense. HAVE + the past participle. Learn more about perfect tense grammar HERE]

Continuous tenseLISTENING

  • Could you say that again? Sorry I wasn’t listening.

You cannot ‘listen something’ (without ‘to’) I’m fond of listening to classical music.I’m fond of listening classical music.

Oxford learner’s dictionary

ESL student question

“I like to listen to music when I study. I focus on studying, not the music so why do we say ‘Listen to music’ when we study?”

Great question! When we play music while we do some other activity (work, study, cook, clean, etc.) the music is playing in the background. Our ears catch the sounds but we chose those sounds. We chose to play that music so the sounds are planned. We LISTEN to music while we study.

If there is music playing that we didn’t choose, like in a cafe or restaurant, we can hear it but we don’t say listening. We didn’t choose the music. I often go to a cafe to work on my blog and I like the background music, but I HEAR it, I don’t listen to it.

I would describe the situation without using the verbs HEAR or LISTEN at all.

“There is nice music playing in the background.”

Phrasal Verbs with HEAR and LISTEN

From http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/

Phrasal Verbs with HEAR

hear about – to know about somebody/something because you have been told about them

  • I heard about this restaurant from one of my coworkers.

hear from – to receive a letter, email, phone call, etc. from somebody

  • It was great to hear from you again.

hear (someone) out – to listen until somebody has finished saying what they want to say

  • Before we get mad at Ryan let’s hear him out.

Phrasal Verbs with LISTEN

listen for – to be prepared to hear a particular sound

  • Could you listen for the doorbell for me? I’m expecting a package from Amazon today.

listen in – to listen to a conversation that you are not supposed to hear

  • As the criminals made their plans the police were secretly listening in.

listen up used to tell people to listen carefully because you are going to say something important

  • Okay everyone, listen up!
Hear Vs Listen What's the difference?
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