What Is Auditory Attention?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Auditory attention is the ability to focus on specific sounds and process them to extract meaning. It plays a role in activities ranging from learning to driving a car safely. People who have trouble with auditory attention may have difficulty completing ordinary tasks. Therapy is available to assist patients with conditions like Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), which makes it hard for patients to interpret and apply the sounds they hear.

Auditory attention is extremely important when driving.
Auditory attention is extremely important when driving.

Many species have sharp auditory attention skills, because they provide clear evolutionary benefits. Humans are capable of identifying speech in a wide range of conditions and separating it out from other noises. Auditory attention also allows people to be selective about the noises they hear, to concentrate on one speaker in a crowd, for example, or to tune out background clutter to focus on a particular task. A variety of cognitive processes are involved in how people acquire sounds, interpret them, and decide what to do with them.

Auditory processing happens via the auditory pathways.
Auditory processing happens via the auditory pathways.

The first aspect of auditory attention involves attracting attention. Then the person needs to stay focused long enough to process the sound, like a teacher lecturing in class, or a safety notification on board an aircraft. Finally, people release their attention to move on to other tasks. Some auditory attention tasks can be split, allowing people to listen and perform other activities at the same time. Others require focused attention, without distractions.

A student's inability to pay attention is not always voluntary.
A student's inability to pay attention is not always voluntary.

Sometimes, those who have difficulty with auditory attention may appear lazy, unfocused, or distracted. In classroom environments, children are sometimes warned about inappropriate behavior or failure to focus by teachers who may not realize that their inability to pay attention is not voluntary. Patients with processing disorders have difficulty focusing on specific stimuli and reading them correctly. Disability screening can identify auditory processing disorder and other conditions in children who appear to have trouble focusing in class.

Treatment for disorders of auditory attention can vary, depending on the origin of the problem. Sometimes, for example, material may be presented in a more accessible format, like a handout for students. Other people may benefit from therapy sessions where they can develop skills to help them pick out key pieces of auditory information. In some cases, people have trouble paying attention because they have poor hearing, in which case treatment may include hearing aids or sign language education to provide an alternate method of communication that may make the patient feel more comfortable.

Some children who have hearing loss find it difficult to understand their teachers.
Some children who have hearing loss find it difficult to understand their teachers.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I can listen to music and pay attention to the lyrics while doing other things. I like to paint while listening to new music, and this doesn't distract me from hearing the words.

However, if someone is talking to me while the music is on, I have to focus my hearing on either the person or the song. I can't hear both at once.


@healthy4life – Maybe some of your friends had ADD. I knew a kid with this, and we all viewed him as a troublemaker, but really, the fact that he couldn't pay attention in class wasn't all his fault.

He was failing, and he was always distracting other kids by throwing things at them or poking them during class. His parents finally decided that he needed professional help, so they took him to a psychiatrist.

They learned that he had ADD, and he needed medication. His medicine helped him calm down and focus, and he was able to pull his grades up. He even stopped causing so much commotion in class.


I was pretty good at paying attention in school to what the teacher was saying. Maybe this was because I knew I'd be tested on it later, or maybe I just had particularly good auditory attention skills.

Many of my friends couldn't concentrate the way that I could. They would borrow my notes to copy later, since they didn't even hear half of what was being said.


Auditory attention is one of those things you just don't think about until it's pointed out to you. I am pretty good at tuning into certain sounds, like one voice among many, but I don't really think about how it is happening at the time.

I just know that, for whatever reason, I am interested in hearing that one person, so I pay close attention to the voice. Everything else suddenly becomes background noise.

It becomes frustrating if the voice is too quiet for me to really hear every word that's being said, and the background noise becomes a hurdle. That just makes me concentrate that much harder.

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