When should one use 聴く instead of 聞く? Is there a precise rule for which one to use in which situation?

I have a feeling that 聞 is used more when the source of the sound is a person or other living being, whereas 聴 is reserved for when the source of the sound is a inanimate object. Am I correct?

What about 訊く?

2 Answers 2


When I see 聴 my mind basically jumps first to 音楽を聴く. As mentioned this has the meaning of listening to something with some sort of interest in it. You might want to connect it to the word 傾聴, which means "to listen intently," or roughly that. Of course you can use 聞く in that sentence but that kanji has a broader meaning of hearing in general. The difference is basically the same as that between 見る and 観る, as in 犬を見た vs. 映画を観た.

Asking questions has its own dedicated kanji as well: 訊く. You could probably translate this as "inquire," as using that kanji gives it a slightly more refined feel, and I think that this holds true for the others as well. The choice to use these kanji is deliberate and creates extra nuance as to the nature of what you are hearing (vs. listening), seeing (vs. watching), asking (vs. inquiring), etc.

Just a note from the dictionary on the usage of 聴く:

(2)心を落ち着け注意して耳に入れる。傾聴(けいちよう)する。《聴》 「音楽を―・く」

And 訊く:

(4)(「訊く」とも書く)たずねて、答えを求める。問う。 「名前を―・く」「自分の胸に―・く」


I think of the difference between 聴く and 聞く as the difference between "to listen" and "to hear". That is,

I'm listening to his story.


I can hear sounds.

If I hear loud noise, I start feeling sick.

(which are examples contrary to your animate/inanimate hypothesis).

Intentional listening should be 聴く, the hearing of sounds should be 聞く.

  • Can 聴 also be used for 'to ask' with a similar nuance? Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 14:38
  • 1
    actually to ask you might even use 訊く
    – ssb
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 15:02
  • Since this answer was posted, the asker added 訊く to their question.
    – user1478
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 15:17
  • @snailplane Thanks. I was away for an hour, and now it seems I missed all the action. I'll need to add something, or else this answer will just be obsolete. =)
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Mar 13, 2013 at 16:13
  • @downvoter Please leave a comment.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 10:22

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