Only a couple of times in my life do I remember hearing a sound & not being able to immediately identify its source, but the psychological distance between when you first notice it and then when you identify it is fascinating: my brain starts taking great leaps as to what it might be, its like imagination fighting with logic! So the question is, what sounds have you heard in real life that you haven't been able to immediately identify?

12 Answers 12


The first thing that comes to mind is the sound of my mom's ring tone when she calls, always sounds like an alarm... or something much more menacing.... hehe

Jokes aside, This happens to me a lot... I think as an Engineer and Sound Designer sometimes we stop hearing things for what they are, and for what they COULD be. I hear frequency content and hear texture, then I start thinking what was that. I miiight be alone on this one?

I notice when I listen to music I don't really pick up on the lyrics, or when I am cutting dialogue I don't remember anything that was said, merely what it sounded like.

  • 1
    Same thing happens to me when cutting dialogue. Even more embarrassing is when I'm having a conversation and I realize I don't know what the person said. I was to busy cycling between the tone, timbre, and inflection of their voice, and background noises. – Auddity Sep 3 '11 at 2:45
  • Happens to me all the time. – Chris Fonte Sep 6 '11 at 17:28

There's a spot you can stand in the middle of the ball court at the chichen itza mayan ruins in Mexico where if you clap the reflections will come back sounding like a bird squawk.

it was pretty crazy to experience, and an incredibly sonically rich place in general.

alt text http://www.chichen-itza.co.uk/images/ballcourt.PNG


The song of the Phainopepla, most common in the desert, sounds EXACTLY like a human doing a single whistle, rising in pitch, as if calling for a dog. They're neat-looking, too, like all-black cardinals. Three days later, I was embarrassed to learn that I WASN'T being followed by an OCD-addled, dog-toting hobo.

  • I've been after the sound of these for a while. Ran into one at Joshua Tree recently but was in a spot where there were too many noisy tourists (go figure). Still hoping to catch one! – Stavrosound Sep 3 '11 at 3:34
  • While they're all over the desert southwest, in California, they're also insanely common at Anza Borrego Desert State Park, due West of Joshua Tree. Be sure to check out the Scott's Orioles at Joshua Tree, too, which nest in the palm trees! – NoiseJockey Sep 3 '11 at 16:15

Despite having grown up in the woods, and previously living in a city infested with the little buggers, there's a sound that squirrels make that I hadn't heard before moving to the area I currently live in. There's this very eerie whining bark they can make, that almost sounds like a raspy bird call. In fact, that's what I thought it was for about a year. I'd be out walking my dog in the morning, and I'd hear this sound that I could never identify.

There are several birds in the area that make somewhat similar sounds, so I continued to assume that it was one of them. Eventually, on one of those walks, I heard this sound and was able to spot a squirrel on a telephone line in the direction of the sound. It's chest was heaving in perfect sync with the call. It completely shocked me.

  • Haha, how could I forget! I too has had an unexpected encounter with mouthy squirrels! I was living in the outskirts of Stockholm with the producers on a low-budget project when I heard the weirdest sound while we where on the balcony enjoying coffee and cigarillos. They quite instantly told me what it was, but I simply couldn't believe it until they came running in full career on the walls with their aim set for my sweet sweet sandwich! :-) Pretty impressive wall-climbers no less! – Christian van Caine Sep 3 '11 at 8:29

Can't really remember anything I didn't have at least a clue of what it was, but to stay true to the title "Misinterpreting Sounds", I was out in the field recording what I thought was some kind'a strange nocturnal birds chirping around like there where no tomorrow. After a while one of these little fellas started to circle me, and I realized it was nothing near a bird, it was a Daubenton's bat! Cute little critter :-) Frankly had no clue whatsoever there where actually bats that made noises in the audible spectrum before this (about three-four year ago now)!


Generally, I am fairly good at identifying most sounds, but it does happen to me on occasion in the car - something is rattling, and I can't figure out what. I try to make educated decisions based on matching the frequency of the rattle to the size of what it might be, but that often gets me so far - I'll often spend 15 minutes trying to figure out what it is or it will drive me crazy!

Also happens every once in a while at work as well - when something happens from a different room or down the hall that sounds really cool, and I have to investigate to try to find it.

Generally it turns out to be an object that was manipulated in a way that isn't common, or some strange acoustic or psychoacoustic effect...

Fascinating question!

  • @Colin my mom does that when something is rattling in the car. She's good at it and if she doesn't find it, she says it will drive her crazy. – ChrisSound Sep 3 '11 at 17:11

One day, after a 4am shift, i was having a siesta. Drifting in and out of sleep, i heard what sounded like someone playing a trumpet upstairs. When i woke up, it turned out to be someone talking. It was interesting because it wasn't a case of my dreams trying to incorporate the sound so i don't wake up, i actually felt like i was hearing a trumpet.


One of the strangest experiences I ever had was recording production sound for my friend's Civil War era thesis film. We were location scouting for the corn field we would be shooting in north of Los Angeles and suddenly I heard these strange high pitched shrieks coming from the distance. I thought they were hyenas. One of the producers postulated exotic birds. The other producer walked across the road to investigate and discovered that there was a gibbon breeder there. Needless to say that we had quite a few blown takes where during a dramatic moment an army of high strung primates began adding their eerie chorus to the soundtrack.


Many years ago in university I decided to surprise my-then-girlfriend with a romantic night in. After dinner (which was probably pizza) I escorted her to my concrete walled dorm room, where upon I lit some candles and proceeded to give her a massage. Instead of one thing leading to another, she drifted off into a gentle slumber and somehow, despite being in a completely upright position, I did as well. That's when the candles set off the smoke alarm which was directly above my head.

It was so loud, it didn't register as a sound to me. All my brain could manage was this hind brain all encompassing certainty that SOMETHING WAS VERY WRONG, but I had know idea what. Never mind being able to identify what the sound was, I couldn't identify that it was sound at all. It wasn't until I opened my mouth to say 'uhhh' (I'm just brilliant under pressure) that my brain untangled the sensory overload and I became aware of the incredibly loud alarm.


I was recording this week and was near a bike path. A bike went by and it sounded like a jet roar. That's not misinterpreting it but now that I am thinking about it, this is the second time when I bike, mainly the tires while moving, sounded to me like something other than a bike.


With regards to animals that have strange calls or might not sound like you expect them to: deer and fox calls at night can sound pretty creepy. Foxes can sound like animals in distress and I believe some deer can sound like babies crying (I could have the two mixed up though). Very disturbing to wake up to in the middle of the night!


This is a bit off topic, but it is about the role of the brain and eyes in sound recognition. Pretty cool Aural illusion.


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