The rumble of traffic and the wailing of sirens (Sounds, Part 1)

blurred photograph of cars and an ambulance driving through a busy city
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by Kate Woodford

Have you ever wanted to describe a sound that you heard but found you didn’t have quite the right word for it? Then read on, because this post (and Parts 2 and 3) will provide you with a range of specific words and phrases to refer to the sounds we hear in our daily life. We’ll start by looking at noises that we hear in an urban environment. As you might imagine, many relate to vehicles.

What do you hear when you leave your home? If, like me, you live near a main road, you might be aware of the continuous low noise of traffic. We describe this – and other continuous low noises – as a hum, a drone or a rumble:

There was just the faintest hum of late-night traffic.

I was driven mad by the constant drone of planes flying over our house.

The only sound is the rumble of trucks on the nearby highway.

If a continuous sound is very loud, we might use the noun roar instead. To emphasize how loud the roar is, we can use the collocating adjective deafening:

We could hear very little above the deafening roar of traffic from the nearby M6.

Now and then, you might hear the unpleasant, high sound of a vehicle suddenly stopping. This is often referred to as a screech or squeal of brakes:

There was a screech of brakes followed by a loud bang.

During the daytime, you might also hear the honking or hooting of horns in vehicles:

The incessant honking of horns drives me mad.

Another sound that’s heard in cities is the wailing (= long, high sound) of sirens in emergency vehicles: Ambulances and police cars sped by, their sirens wailing.

Moving on from vehicles, music is something that you often hear in an urban setting. If it’s unpleasantly loud (and being played by someone else!), you might describe it as blaring or blaring out:

Local residents are fed up with music blaring from car stereos.

I couldn’t hear him because of all the music blaring out from the speakers.

If you live near a church, you sometimes hear bells ringing out (=making a loud sound). You can also refer to this as bells pealing or chiming:

In the square, the church bells pealed.

The bells chimed throughout the night.

You might also hear dogs barking. If the dog is making a long, sad sound, you can use the verb howl:

The neighbour’s dog started barking in the middle of the night.

Did you hear that dog howling last night?

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the sounds of the city. In Part 2 of this post, I’ll look at sound words relating to nature.


18 thoughts on “The rumble of traffic and the wailing of sirens (Sounds, Part 1)

  1. Gianfranco Maggi

    Thanks a lot mrs Kate for your very interesting lesson on how to describe different sounds correctly. Don’ t give up please.

    1. Muhammad Ali

      Thanks for posts like these. I’m an English teacher teaching non native students. I’m so going to love incorporating these into my lessons, especially on descriptive writing. Simple choice of words, but very relevant if we want to think about and navigate our surroundings. I knew all the words except peal, but you have done a great job bringing them together. Looking forward to more creative posts like these!

  2. Kate Woodford

    Many thanks for all your lovely comments! There are two more posts to come on the subject of sounds, so do look out for them. Best wishes from Cambridge.

  3. Nataly

    Hello, Kate. Maybe it’s an inappropriate request in this article but could you write an article related to words that describe the war? I live in Ukraine now, and I’m struggling to understand all military terms used in European media outlets. I would be grateful for your help.

    1. Hi Nataly, thank you for your comment. Everyone at Cambridge has been shocked and saddened by events in Ukraine and we are so sorry that you find yourself in a situation where you need to understand military terms and words of war. You may find it useful to search for words or phrases using the online Cambridge Dictionary, which can be accessed here: Our thoughts are with you and all those affected by what’s happening and we wish you all the best.

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