How to describe sounds

“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”

Matsuo Basho, the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan

Read the text below:

It was a dark and stormy night; I shut my eyes…

The windows rattled in the wind and there was a distant rumble of thunder. Trees rustled and big raindrops splashed onto the windows.

Then someone beeped their horn and a car stopped with a screech of breaks. Someone slammed the car door shut… footsteps squelched through the mud… a floorboard on the stairs creaked… and there was a high-pitched scream – from me!

This horror story is so colorful and dramatic because it is full of expressive sound vocabulary. If you want to become a better story teller, then make sure you know the words from the table below:

Word Direct meaning Figurative meaning
To rattle – verb

Rattle – noun

Small stones rattled on the underside of the car. Stop rattling (talking without a stop)! I am trying to concentrate!
To rumble – verb

Rumble – noun

We can hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten any breakfast.
To rustle [‘rʌsl] – verb

Rustle – noun

The dry leaf rustles in the bush. We need to rustle (act fast and energetically)! Otherwise our competitors will outstrip us.
To splash – verb

Splash – noun

Some paint splashed onto the rug. Don’t splash your money on such things! (don’t waste your money on such things!)
To beep – verb

Beep – noun

He beeped at the cyclist who was trying to cross the road. We beeped the doctor (we called the doctor by sending a signal to his beeper/pager).
To screech – verb

Screech – noun

The car screeched to a standstill (stopped very suddenly, making a loud high noise). The economic recovery is likely to screech to a standstill (stop very suddenly) if taxes are increased.
To slam – verb

Slam – noun

She slammed the door shut. Although the reviewers slammed (criticized) the play, the audience loved it.
To squelch – verb

Squelch – noun

Squelch through the water only wearing gum boots. The politician has squelched (quickly ended something causing problems) rumors about his ill health.
To creak – verb

Creak – noun

I heard the floorboards creak as he crept closer. The system started to creak (showing its frailty under strain).
High-pitched Her high-pitched voice is easy to hear even in the distance. It was a high-pitched (agitated), sometimes almost frantic presidential campaign.

Now let’s see what sounds animals make and how they can be used to describe human behavior:

pexels-photo-379926

Word Direct meaning Figurative meaning
To bark – verb

Bark – noun

Our dog always barks at the postman. The policeman barked out a warning as the gunmen appeared (the policeman shouted a warning to the gunmen).
To howl [haul] – verb

Howl – noun

In the silence of the night, a lone wolf howled. We were howling with laughter (we were making a loud sound expressing our strong emotion).
To growl [graul] – verb

Growl – noun

The dog growled at her and snapped at her ankle. “Not now, I’m busy,” he growled (he said with irritation).
To buzz – verb

Buzz – noun

I like the sound of bees buzzing. The place was buzzing with excitement (the place was busy and full of energy).
To hum – verb

Hum – noun

Bees cluster and hum. She was humming to herself while she was walking to school (she sang without opening her mouth).
To roar [rɔː] – verb

Roar – noun

We could hear the lions roaring at the other end of the zoo. “Stop that!” he roared (he shouted loudly).
To squeak – verb

Squeak – noun  

The mice in the barn squeaked. If I hear one more squeak out of you (if you say anything else), there will be trouble!
To crow [krəu] (crew; crown) – verb

Crow – noun

We were woken at dawn by a cock crowing repeatedly. He is always crowing (talking in a proud and annoying way) about his triumph.
To hoot – verb

Hoot – noun

I hear an owl [aul] hooting. She hooted at me (she sounded her car horn).
To hiss – verb

Hiss – noun

The snake lifted its head and hissed. She hissed a curse at him (she said it in a quiet angry way).
To grunt – verb

Grunt – noun

The pigs were grunting contentedly while eating their food. He grunted to her that he would get up later (he made a short loud sound showing his anger and unwillingness to get up earlier).
To croak – verb

Croak – noun

You can hear frogs croak near the lake.

Note that crows [krəuz] croak too.

He was croaking because he had a sore throat (he had a rough voice because of the health problem).

 

Most of the words from the tables above were formed by imitating the natural sound associated with the object or action involved. This kind of formation is called onomatopoeia [ˌɔnəˌmætə’piːə]. Remember the sound a snake makes. It really sounds like hissing. The same can be said about the sound of bees (buzzing), frogs (croaking), lions (roaring) etc. We hope these associations will help you remember the sound vocabulary!