I'm trying to speak about the nature of music; I want to say that the very nature of the medium of sound, a kind of universal language, makes it impossible not to interpret what is presented to us. (The laws of physics make music from different cultures ultimately very similar.)

How might I express this with some interesting parallelism? I tried using the read-understand pair, but I'm not sure if this makes my meaning obvious enough. I feel like there's some word that I can't think of that would make this analogy (or another) work.

It is possible to read and not understand, but impossible to listen and not hear.

  • 4
    I hear what you are saying, but I don't understand it.
    – bib
    Nov 7, 2015 at 18:24
  • 3
    I don't believe the parallel you're trying for would be true even if you could express it deftly. It would depend on your being able to prove a negative proposition, which as we all know is impossible, at least with respect to future events.
    – Robusto
    Nov 7, 2015 at 20:12
  • 2
    Listen and hear are respectively the volitional and non-volitional parts of the aural sense verb triad; the third, experiencer, part is sound. Reading English, on the other hand, is not a sense, but a learned skill, like sailing a catamaran, and there is no real analogy between reading and understanding. As everyone knows, not everybody understands everything they read. Nov 7, 2015 at 22:36
  • Do empty catamarans make twice as much sound? Nov 7, 2015 at 22:47
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    Look and listen are parallels. see and hear are parallels. Understand works in both cases. You can certainly listen without hearing. Listen, do you hear that sound? No. There, do you hear it now? It’s getting louder. With reading the only thing I can think of off-hand is “to make out [the words]- I’m listening, I can hear some talking but I can’t make out what they are saying = I’m looking, I can see some writhing, but I can’t read it. And even if I could make out what was said, or what was written, I might not understand either one.
    – Jim
    Nov 8, 2015 at 6:27

7 Answers 7


I would phrase the analogy


where appreciate is used in the sense

"To apprehend or understand clearly or correctly; to recognize or grasp the significance or subtleties of." (from the OED Online, 3.a)

As such, I don't think your statement is accurate--many people listen to various forms of music without appreciating it in this sense (and also without appreciating it in the more common sense of liking it); thus "music appreciation" classes.

I think what you're going for is something more like

One must learn to recognize and read writing, but a recognition of music is instinctual.

or perhaps

One can look at writing without reading it, but it is impossible to hear music without perceiving it.

You are probably aware that there is some debate among psychologists about whether music is instinctive or learned or something in between (thus my use of "instinctual" above), which might make the latter a safer choice.

Edited to add that if it is the physical properties you are most interested in, you might say something like

One can close one's eyes to writing, but one cannot close one's ears to music.


Initially, I thought the following to be an improvement, but now I'm not so sure. Here it is:

It is possible to read without understanding, but impossible to listen without hearing.

The sound and cadence of the words may have improved the parallelism but not the meaning. How about:

It is possible to understand without reading, but impossible to listen without hearing.

No, that won't do. It simply states what is obvious and it would not be consonant with a musical analogy.

Thinking out loud, now, music is indeed the universal language. However, just plain sound is not a language. We may anthropomorphize the sounds of nature, but even then, the sound of a bumblebee, for example, will be imitated differently in different languages with wildly divergent onomatopea.

The same reasoning applies to the sound of thunder, the sound of a tree falling in the forest (yes, it makes a sound, even if no one is there to hear it!), and the sound of squealing car brakes. A person with normal hearing receives the auditory signals in the same way another person does, even though some people are better guessers than others in saying what exactly they hear. Then too, normal-hearing people can "block out" sounds when they are totally engrossed in a competing activity, in the same way teenagers do when their mothers ask them to take out the trash. (I need to qualify the last sentence, of course, since many teens do hear their mothers; they're just not listening!)

Back to music . . .. Yes, music involves the same laws of physics and physiology as just plain sounds (the crack of lightning, the roar of thunder), but when music is made by sentient human beings, they do so deliberately and with technique, whether they are making whistling sounds by blowing into their cupped hands (something I'm pretty good at), or expertly stroking the strings of a violin with a horsehair bow as they play Brahms' Violin Concerto.

As dramatists say, "Things move; people act."

Where does that leave us, then? Well, of music, people are wont to say,

No particular genre of music really turns me on. I have rather eclectic tastes. I do, however, know good music when I hear it.

Interesting. They know good music when they hear it. Are knowing what good music is and liking the good music one hears causally related, such that hearing good music automatically brings pleasure to someone? Of course not. I can enjoy the heck out of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony when I'm in the mood to listen to it. When I'm not in the mood, however, I derive very little pleasure from it. In fact, it can even sound like so much noise!

Another wrinkle: How can someone's judgment as to what constitutes good music be measured? Some people are said to have tin ears, whereas others are said to have golden ears. Why? Certainly, education has a great deal to do with what one hears and how one hears it. Still, a person who has never taken a music course or been able to read a note of music can still appreciate a classic piece of music, such as Beethoven's Seventh. By the same token, the very same person can also appreciate a Reggae song, whether it's played expertly by native Jamaicans or less than expertly by WASPS.

Still another wrinkle is the effect which music has on folks who are born deaf. We all know that deaf people can feel music's vibrations, but then so can hearing people. Obviously deaf people are missing an extremely important part of music, but have you ever heard a deaf person sing? Of course a person who lost his or her hearing after knowing what music sounds like through hearing ears can likely sing. Actually, I've never knowingly heard a person who was born deaf, sing. I googled that question just now and went to this site. Interesting!

Are we any closer to crafting a catchy sentence with great parallelism? Well, again, thinking out loud: Perhaps we need to incorporate the word music into the sentence. You could go with my first suggestion, provided you went on to develop and explain it, using the magic words, "for example." We've kind of concluded, however, that the sentence may not be worth saving, so let's see what we come up with by including the word music in it.

A couple of first tries:

  • Sound is impossible to ignore completely, but music is possible to appreciate incompletely.

Hey, we might be on to something here!

  • It is quite impossible to ignore sound completely, but eminently possible to appreciate music incompletely.

I think I'll stop there, at least for now.

  • 1
    Good effort, but I don't think that is what the OP is asking for.
    – Robusto
    Nov 8, 2015 at 1:42
  • @Robusto: You could be right. I gave it a shot, though. The main "error" in OP's thinking, to me, is the notion that sound itself is a universal language. No, sound is not a language. True enough we can convert sound into language (e.g., onomatopea), and we can even mimic the sounds of nature with our lungs and vocal apparatus (albeit imperfectly), but the argument can be made that music is the universal language because I as an English speaker do not need to speak Japanese (or even be familiar with Japanese culture), for example, to appreciate Japanese music. Don Nov 8, 2015 at 2:00

"Hear-listen". Example, you hear voices around you but you did not listen to what they are talking about. Hearing only let you sense the sounds but listening involves focus and understanding to what people are talking about. .It's like at school where the teacher is talking and you are doing something. You can hear the teacher's voice but you did not listen to what he/she is talking about.


I agree with other comments that the two parts are not really parallel as written.

Keep in mind that it will be difficult to convey what it takes you a paragraph to describe:

I'm trying to speak about the nature of music; I want to say that the very nature of the medium of sound, a kind of universal language, makes it impossible not to interpret what is presented to us. (The laws of physics make music from different cultures ultimately very similar.)

... in one sentence without being wordy. With that caution in mind, I would suggest:

One may read without understanding, but one cannot hear music without feeling.

Although it is a bit wordier, I would suggest you consider:

One may read books without comprehending, but one cannot hear music without feeling.


"Understand" pertains to reading information, because that is what is contained in words. Music (or sound in general) emotes rather than describes. When we listen to a sound, it evokes an emotional response or is ignored (be it a car crash, buzz, swoosh, click, roar or Rock and Roll) This is why linguistically damaged brains still respond to music. ("To look at images/art" might also apply here.)

Thus an option would be "read to understand, listen to feel." Of course this raises the question about "understanding how you feel", since we also use "understand" to mean "empathize with".


You have them reversed.

Hear- listen is parallel to read- ... well, it's more complicated than that.

  • To hear is like to see: you've just perceived something, but not necessarily paid any attention to it or realized it's implications.

  • To listen is like to look: you're paying attention, really trying to understand.

  • To understand is fully a mental concept, not really attached to any particular sensation.

So the most appropriate analogy is:

to hear is to listen as to see is to look as to perceive is to attend to.

Listening and attending are not automatically understanding, but they surely get you closer than mere perceiving.


I think of hearing as the automatic part of the sense and listening as the deliberate part. For example I might hear piped music in shop and take little or no notice of it; I might even try conciously to ignore it. On the other hand I deliberately listen to music at a concert. I also believe that songwriter Paul Simon shares this view since his song "The Sound of Silence" contains the lines "People hearing without listening / People writing songs that voices never share" to express social isolation. This also explains why someone can listen but not hear because they are paying definite attention to a potential source of information but the volume is too low or the sound is too distorted for the automatic part of the sense to pass any meaningful information to the brain.

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