14 Sound Similes

Evaluating Figurative Comparisons

Austrian singer Conchita Wurst
Austrian singer Conchita Wurst (also known as Thomas Neuwirth) sounds to Clive James "like incoming artillery.". Getty

In writing that's cluttered with clichés, loud noises predictably sound like thunder, while sweet voices are likened to honey, angels, or bells. But in writing that's fresh and daring, unfamiliar comparisons may sometimes surprise, delight, or enlighten us.

This doesn't mean that all original similes are effective. A far-fetched comparison may strike some readers as more distracting than revealing, more puzzling than entertaining.

Ultimately, of course, how we respond to a figure of speech is largely a matter of taste.

Drawn from recent works of fiction and nonfiction, these 14 similes about sounds should help you determine your taste in figurative language. Read each passage aloud, and then identify the similes that you think are particularly creative, insightful, or humorous. In contrast, which ones leave you bored, annoyed, or confused? Be prepared to compare your responses with those of your friends or classmates.

14 Sound Similes to Discover 

  1. Welshmen Singing
    "Welshmen like Mr. Davis put great stock in Welsh singing, but to my Irish ears it sounds like men jumping off chairs into a bathtub full of frogs."
    (P.J. O'Rourke, "The Welsh National Combined Mud Wrestling and Spelling Bee Championship." Age and Guile, Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995)
  2. Branches Scratching Against a Window
    "The floorboards creaked in the room where Rain used to be, and the branches of the cherry tree in the front yard near Edgar Allan Poe's grave swayed in the wind. They scratched against the glass with a soft tap, tap, tap. It sounded like a lizard's paws. Then it sounded like a serpent's tongue. Then it sounded like five weak fingers rapping on the windowpane, the same gentle fingers that used to comb and braid Alice's hair."
    (Lisa Dierbeck, One Pill Makes You Smaller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)
  1. The Winner of the Eurovision Song Contest
    "Nobody knows what Edward II sounded like when he sang, but now the whole world knows what Conchita sounds like. She, or he, sounds like incoming artillery. One hundred and eighty million people in 45 countries were blown sideways by the uproar emanating from a young woman pretending to be Russell Brand, or perhaps it was Russell Brand pretending to be a young woman."
    (Clive James, "Conchita's Voice Sounded Like Incoming Artillery." The Telegraph, May 17, 2014)
  1. A Sneeze
    "Without warning, Lionel gave one of his tight little sneezes: it sounded like a bullet fired through a silencer."
    (Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
  2. A Boy
    "For all his roughness and arrogance, the boy was transformed when he was in the presence of girls. He spoke in a voice as soft as the silken filaments that float out of a cocoon."
    (Carol Field, Mangoes and Quince. Bloomsbury, 2001)
  3. The Invisible Noise
    "During other sessions, I've told her about the noise. The invisible noise that only I can hear—a noise that sounds like the mumbling of a million broken voices saying nothing at all or the hum of the wind through an open car window at seventy miles per hour. I can even see the noise sometimes. It circles above people like a clear vulture with sparks of electricity in its wings—hovering dangerously above their heads before swooping down."
    (Brian James, Life Is But a Dream. Feiwel & Friends, 2012)
  4. Hoofbeats, Sabers, and Shots
    "The street was alive with them, hollow-eyed and faceless astride coal-black horses, their muffled hoofbeats sounding like rapid shots miles away. Only these sounds were right here and I was in the midst of them. Sabers whistled. Once I heard a noise like a cook's cleaver striking half-boiled meat, a nauseating sound. Then there were real shots, hard and sharp, like derisive coughs, and metal-gray smoke that mingled with the white vapor exhaled by the horses."
    (Loren D. Estleman, Murdock's Law, 1982)
  1. Bob Dylan
    "Everyone who heard it—even the people who said that Dylan sounded like a dog with his leg trapped in barbed wire—knew Bob Dylan was a phenomenon."
    (Lewis Macadams, Birth Of The Cool. The Free Press, 2001)
  2. Leonard Cohen
    "It is a penitent's voice, a rabbinical voice, a crust of unleavened vocal toast--spread with smoke and subversive wit. He has a voice like a carpet in an old hotel, like a bad itch on the hunchback of love."
    (Tom Robbins, "Leonard Cohen." Wild Ducks Flying Backward. Bantam, 2005)
  3. The Reverberations of Train Horns
    "When the train horns sounded and then were quiet, there were pure reverberations up and down the river that sounded like a plucked harp string or a piano note sustained by holding down a pedal."
    (Mark Knudsen, Old Man River and Me: One Man's Journey Down the Mighty Mississippi. Thomas Nelson, 1999)
  1. Cello Music
    "It isn't music Louise has ever heard before. It sounds like a lullaby, and then it sounds like a pack of wolves, and then it sounds like a slaughterhouse, and then it sounds like a motel room and a married man saying I love you and the shower is running at the same time. It makes her teeth ache and her heart rattle."
    (Kelly Link, "Louise's Ghost." Poe's Children: The New Horror, ed. by Peter Straub. Doubleday, 2008)
  2. Lyle Filbender
    "I took a deep breath and started to speak. I can't remember half of what I said, but I do know that I was at least a million times more inspiring than Lyle Filbender. He sounded like a defective robot in need of a battery change and had to be reprimanded twice for calling the Mission's clients 'bums.'"
    (Maureen Fergus, Exploits of a Reluctant (but Extremely Goodlooking) Hero. Kids Can Press, 2007)
  3. A Voice on the Phone
    "Carl reached for the phone, his gut tightening. Even before he heard the voice on the other end, he suspected—no, knew—it would be him. 'You did real well,' the voice said, a voice like dry leaves rustling down a sidewalk."
    (J. Michael Straczynski, "We Killed Them in the Ratings." Blowout in Little Man Flats, ed. by Billie Sue Mosiman and Martin Greenberg. Rutledge Hill, 1998)
  4. Chains at the Forge
    "Rails suspended overhead, from which black chains hung like jungle vines that clattered through their blocks, making a tooth-rattling noise, a noise like the jabbering of a thousand jawbones in a thousand skulls."
    (John Griesemer, Signal and Noise. Hutchinson, 2004)