Language is not quite uniquely human but human language far surpasses that of any other species. It is the means by which we communicate with each other, and because of that it is central to human life as we know it. Listening is the receptive end of communication, and it refers not only to the auditory but to every form of communication. “Listening” is merely a word we use to express the general idea of receiving input from others about their ideas, feelings, experiences and any other kind of information.
Turn-taking. When someone else is speaking, politeness dictates that we not interrupt. This is far more than a mere convention in polite society. We cannot learn if we do not listen. In fact, listening is how we learn language.
Turn-taking is an essential part of language development and evolution. “The core niche for language use is in verbal interaction, involving the rapid exchange of turns at talking.” Because we cannot effectively receive information if we are too busy transmitting it, humans and non-human animals take turns transmitting information. Too-quick responses are positively correlated with less effective listening. Ghazanfar and Takahashi argue that “human vocal cooperation (turn-taking) may have arisen through a combination of volubility and prosociality”. Turn-taking skills begin to appear shortly after the first birthday.
Human “speakers begin to plan their turns as soon as sufficient information is available to do so, irrespective of further incoming words”. This is “consistent with models of turn-taking that assume that next speakers (a) start planning their response as soon as the incoming turn’s message can be understood and (b) monitor the incoming turn for cues to turn-completion so as to initiate their response when turn-transition becomes relevant”. Turn-taking “requires the ability to process on-going turns at talk while planning the next, and to launch this next turn without considerable overlap or delay”.
“In every-day conversations, the gap between turns of conversational partners is most frequently between 0 and 200 ms.” This is one-fifth of a second or less. “Using a worldwide sample of 10 languages drawn from traditional indigenous communities to major world languages, (Stivers, et. al., concluded) that all of the languages tested provide clear evidence for a general avoidance of overlapping talk and a minimization of silence between conversational turns.” Corps, et. al., argue: “Listeners use content predictions to determine what to say but not when to say it”.
Scott, et. al., propose that “motor cortex activation is essential in joint speech, particularly for the timing of turn taking”. EEG studies have explored the phenomenon of turn-taking, with Ahn, et. al., making a case for “(i)nterbrain phase synchronization during turn-taking verbal interaction”. Response-planning may take place may take place several seconds before the end of the question.
Visual cues play a substantial role. Children may be inclined to focus more on the mouth or on the eyes, depending on whether the other party in the conversation is speaking, and on whether the listener can hear or is deaf. In a study by Nota, et. al.: “Most facial signals occurred early in the utterance, and had earlier onsets in questions.”. Non-linguistic turn-taking, which is also a method of communication, has been studied in chimpanzees.
The work on turn-taking has been applied in interprofessional team meetings, physician-patient communication, parent-child interaction and training, mother-infant interaction, teacher-preschooler interactions, interactions among pre-verbal infants, mother interactions with term versus pre-term infants, parent-child interaction in infant deafness, and child-to-child interactions. “Pre-linguistic infants employ complex communicative loops to engage mothers in social exchanges and repair interaction ruptures”. “Despite broad differences in the overall talkativeness of mothers and infants, maternal and infant contingent vocal responsiveness is found across communities, supporting essential functions of turn taking in early-childhood socialization.” A comparison of studies on turn-taking in Swedish, indigenous Australian and Japanese, populations supports the cultural role in shaping the dynamics of turn-taking in particular human cultures. Research on communicative turn-taking among bonobos and chimpanzees, monkeys, marmosets, infant marmosets, bats, meerkats, harbor seal pups, and starlings, strongly supports the deep evolutionary roots of turn-taking.
Now that we humans have language, we can purposefully direct it. This becomes a part of our language evolution. A cultivated skill of turn-taking is an example of this: “Using parentese, a socially and linguistically enhanced speaking style, improves children’s social language turn-taking and language skills.” Romeo, et. al., argue that their findings based on “conversational turn-taking following a family-based intervention “suggest that conversational turns support language development through cortical growth in language and social processing regions”. Kilan, et. al., found that in interpreter-mediated psychiatric consultations, “despite interpreters and clinicians having the patient’s best interests at heart, it is the patient’s voice that becomes lost while the clinician and interpreter negotiate the roles played by each party”, including turn-taking. “Children coordinate in a recurrent social dilemma by taking turns and along dominance asymmetries”. This information should be useful and comforting to people who are mindful about listening and discussing, instead of merely dominating or disrupting conversations.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Erich Fromm, The Art of Listening (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1994).
- Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships (The Guilford Press, 2009).
- Mark Brady, ed., The Wisdom of Listening (Wisdom Publications, 2003).
- Paul J. Donoghue and Mary E. Siegel, Are You Really Listening?: Keys to Successful Communication (Sorin Books, 2005).
- John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 1999) “provides a rich, well documented, and useful foil to the avoidance of issues of theory, history, and the history of theory in the field of communication studies. It opens up the discussion to the important contributions of philosophers, theologians, mystics, and poets to our understanding of the complexity of the ideas clustered in contemporary communication.”
- Daphne A. Brooks, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2021): “Brooks, who teaches at Yale, is explicit about wanting to connect two worlds that would seem to be distinct: those of intellectual theory and commercial appeal. One doesn’t have to exclude the other, she says, even if traditional rock criticism has supposed that market success must come at the expense of that vague and vaunted quality known as 'authenticity.'”
- Mónica Guzmán, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times (BenBella Books, 2022): “Can We Empathize With Our Enemies? One Author Wants Us to Try.”
- Sarah Glidden, Rolling Blackouts: Dispatchees From Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (Drawn & Quarterly, 2017). “In the midst of her cultural wanderings . . . Glidden pieces together something that newspaper reporters often miss . . . By talking to people and living their lives, she unearths very real people and their real stories.”
How well are the various participants in the conversations depicted in the paintings below listening? (Krasner's painting doesn't count.)
- Lee Krasner, Listen (1957)
- René Magritte, The Art of Conversation (1950)
- Giorgio de Chirico, Conversation (1927)
- Henri Matisse, Conversation under the Olive Trees (1921)
- Edgar Degas, The Conversation (1899)
- Mary Cassatt, The Conversation (1896)
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Conversation (1895)
- Edvard Munch, Eye in Eye (1894)
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Conversation (1879)
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Conversation in a Rose Garden (1876)
- Vasily Perov, The Conversation at the Round Table (1866)
- Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, Leaning Forward, Listening (1628)
Film and Stage
- My Dinner With Andre: an extended conversation between two intellectual film artists, one of whom had dropped out of art and society
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
The piano trio form tends to give the impression of an extended conversation among three animated and interested parties, each listening intently to the others. This is especially true of the trios by the French Romantic composers, and Scubert.
- Schubert, Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat major, D. 898, Op. 99 (1827)
- Schubert, Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat major, D. 929, Op. 100 (1827)
- Mendelssohn, Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 (1839)
- Fesca: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 12 (1843)
- Fesca: Piano Trio No. 5 in B Minor, Op. 46 (1845)
- Mendelssohn, Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 (1845)
- Berwald, Piano Trio No. 2 in F Minor (1851)
- Saint-Saëns, Piano Trio No. 1 in F major, Op. 18 (1863)
- Debussy, Piano Trio in G major, L. 5 (1880)
- Chausson, Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3 (1881)
- Saint-Saëns, Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 92 (1892)
- Taneyev, Piano Trio in D major, Op. 22 (1908): careful listening, producing a creative tension
- Ravel, Piano Trio in A minor, M. 67 (1914)
- Faurè, Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 120 (1923)
- Samuel Adler, String Quartet No. 8: I. very slowly; II. Fast and with humor; III. Slowly and very expressively; IV. Fast and with great expression.Samuel Adler, String Quartet No. 8.
- Bliss, Discourse for Orchestra, F113 (1965)
- Weinberg, String Quartet No. 2, Op. 3 (1940)
- Labor, Piano Quintet in E minor, Op. 3
- Labor, Piano Quartet in C major, Op. 6
- Labor, Piano Quintet, Op. 11 (1900)
- Dohnányi, Sting Quartet No. 2 in D flat major, Op. 15 (listening and resolving conflicts)
- Stanton, Imagined Conversations, for trumpet and piano
- Gubaidulina, Violin Concerto No. 3, “Ich und Du” (I and Thou) (2018), after Martin Buber’s 1923 book, and his idea of “dealing with the concept of dialogue as a spiritual vision of the world”. In this work, the dialogue is between the violin soloist and various instruments in the orchestra.
- Ernest John Moeran, Sonata for Two Violins (1930)
- Kenny Barron and Dave Holland, “The Art of Conversation”
- Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller, “The Art of Piano Duo”
- Eliane Elias, with Chick Corea and Chucho Valdés, “Mirror Mirror”
- Han Bennink, Michael Moore and Ernst Reijseger, “Clusone 3”
- Zentralquartett (Conrad Bauer, et. al.), “PLIE”, includes “Conference at Lutens”
- Anthony Braxton and Brett Larner, “11 Compositions (Duo) 1995”
- Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis, “Deep Listening”
- David Friesen and Circle 3 Trio, “Interaction”: “Freedom comes from discipline and this freedom gives us the ability to take our eyes off ourselves, to listen and respond creatively to what we hear . . . receiving music that goes beyond the reason of intellectuality and passes understanding . . . making split second decisions and yielding to others what is best for the moment . . . a technical balancing act, an interaction and agreement of musical ideas shared.” [David Friesen, July 30, 2019, from the album notes]
- Davin-Levin Duo, “Banter”
- The Spike Wilner Trio, “Aliens & Wizards”
- Trio Linguae, “Signals”
- Avram Fefer Quartet, “Testament” (bearing witness)
- Ray Suhy/Lewis Porter Quartet, “Longing”
- Lennie Tristano, “The Duo Sessions”
- César Cardoso, “Interchange”
- Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp, “The Art of Duet, Volume One”
- Matthew Shipp Quartet, “Points”
- Gregory Sauer & Heidi Louise Williams, “Conversa: Duos for Cello and Piano”, including works by various composers
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing a death-sentence,
The heave'e'yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color'd lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play'd at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)
I hear the violoncello, ('tis the young man's heart's complaint,)
I hear the key'd cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.
I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music--this suits me.
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
I hear the train'd soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick'd by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep'd amid honey'd morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.
- James Wood, Upstate: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018): “The all-important conversation that the father envisions never materializes, but over the course of a week these three will gather repeatedly to walk, talk, eat and drive about, while we, the readers, are privy to their brooding thoughts about themselves, one another, and whether or not life has meaning. The brooding is where the action is.”
- Sally Rooney, Normal People: A Novel (Hogarth, 2019): “This novel tracks Marianne and Connell across four years. They are both gifted students and wind up at Trinity College in Dublin. They are never quite boyfriend and girlfriend in the conventional sense. They merely break each other’s hearts over and over again.”