Learning to Listen in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues
In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues", the verb, to listen, is employed many times in varying contexts. This theme is developed throughout the story as the narrator learns to listen more closely to the aural stimuli (or sounds) which enter his ears. In order to understand the narrator's heightened degree of perception as it unfolds in "Sonny's Blues", it is necessary to begin with a thorough discussion of hearing and listening in general, and then as they relate to the story.
First, one must understand the distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing is simply the reception of sound waves by the ears. This may happen unconsciously, as is usually the case with soft background noise such as the whoosh of air through heating ducts or the distant murmur of an electric clothes dryer. Sometimes hearing is done semi-consciously; for instance, the roar of a piece of construction equipment might momentarily draw one's attention. Conscious hearing, or listening, involves a nearly full degree of mental concentration. A familiar instance in which listening takes place would be a casual conversation with a friend or colleague. In such cases, the sound waves entering the ear are transferred to the brain, which then treats the stimuli not as mere noise, but as meaningful language. It is important to realise that there is not a definitive distinction between each of these three degrees of concentration. A more accurate model would consist of "hearing" and "listening" located at opposite ends of a line. Between the two ends, there are an infinite number of degrees to which a person's conscious mind is engaged while accepting aural stimuli. However, it is appropriate for the purpose at hand to make a clear distinction between hearing and listening.
Towards the beginning of "Sonny's Blues", the narrator mentions that "One boy was whistling a tune...it sounded cool and moving..." (p. 48). While he takes time to briefly note the character of the melody as...