Sound vs. Noise- The Difference Between Sound and Noise

Sound vs. Noise- The Difference Between Sound and Noise

Human beings tend to take their senses for granted. Sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell give us information about our environment. We use that information to communicate, react, connect with others, and stay safe. 

Those senses transmit what they receive, and it isn’t all pleasant. Sound, for the hearing community, is everywhere. But what is it? And beyond that, what is the difference between sound and noise?


Sound happens when vibration causes acoustic waves. Those waves usually travel through the air, but they can travel through other mediums as well, like liquids or solids.

sound waves from acoustic guitar

The physics of sound is complex and includes the ways waves are generated and how they interact with different mediums. The physics aren’t as important to your daily life as the physiology of sound, or how the waves are received and interpreted by your brain.

Your ears begin the process by reacting only to sound waves in the audio frequency range. Sound waves above the human range are called ultrasounds, those below are called infrasounds. Different creatures have different ranges of audible sounds.

Even with a limited range of audible frequencies, your brain has a lot of work to do to process the input from your ears. Once a sound wave hits your eardrum, causing it to oscillate, your brain takes the helm and helps you sift and interpret the sounds.

And there is a lot of sifting and interpreting to be done. Your brain helps you figure out if a sound means danger, if it’s an attempt at communication, or if it’s something you can ignore. 

Your brain can do amazing things with the sounds it encounters. Something called the Cocktail Party Phenomenon allows you to pay attention to a single conversation amongst many of the same volume. It’s remarkable coordination of ear and brain.

But what happens when your ears and brain encounter an unpleasant sound that carries no situational meaning? This is when sound crosses the border and becomes noise.


The physics of noise are no different from the physics of sound. It’s the same waves, passing through a medium and reaching your eardrum, and then being interpreted by your brain.

The physiology of noise, how it is perceived by your brain, is where it begins to diverge from sound. Noise is sound, make no mistake, but your brain experiences these sounds as unpleasant, unwanted, or disruptive in context.

In some cases, one man’s sound is another man’s noise. You may find a certain type of music enjoyable, and someone else may find it almost painful. You may love your partner’s laugh, where someone else may find the pitch terribly annoying. 

Other types of noise are not as subjective. Environmental sounds, particularly in urban settings, can almost universally be categorized as noise. Sounds that are too loud become noise. Sounds that have been distorted can become noise.

The sounds made by traffic, construction, and industry are all considered noise. Some of this noise is regulated, specifically in the workplace. Noise can be more than annoying. It can damage your hearing, interrupt your sleep, and even lead to cardiovascular disease.

Sound vs Noise

Noise is simply sound that is undesirable. It can be too loud, occur at inopportune times, or in some way be disruptive. 

We often think of noise as an inescapable part of life and sometimes that’s true. You can’t control a fellow subway passenger’s ringtone or an unexpected clap of thunder. These noises are simply sounds that startle or annoy in the short term.

Environmental noise can range from birdsongs to relentless heavy traffic. While there may be some subjectivity as to whether they are sounds or noise, the background sounds that make up our environment are beyond our control and even pleasant birdsongs can become disruptive.

For the most part, it doesn’t matter if the waves hitting your eardrum and being processed by your brain are determined by someone else to be sound or noise. If a sound irritates you with its volume, frequency, or timing, it’s noise.

The difference between sound and noise becomes important when noise elevates to the level of noise pollution.  

Noise Pollution

When noise has a damaging effect on people and other organisms it becomes noise pollution. In large urban cities, sirens, airplanes, barking dogs, and rumbling trucks can create an endless, irritating overload of sound.

taxi cabs creating noise pollution

Noise pollution is not a new problem, but it is a concerning one. Loud noises, those above 85 decibels, can cause hearing loss. Exposure to an occasional thunderclap isn’t a problem; continual exposure to subway trains or sirens presents a hazard.

Even if the noise in your environment doesn’t reach a level that can cause hearing loss it can still be harmful. This is particularly true for children who can suffer difficulty with concentration and memory when exposed to noise pollution.

Disrupted sleep is a major result of noise pollution, as is stress and high blood pressure. You may think that you can adjust to noise pollution, but your body says otherwise.

Reducing the Negative Effects of Noise

Some noise is simply a part of life, like a honking horn while you’re walking to work. But mitigating loud or continuous noise can protect your hearing and your health.

If you know you’re going to be exposed to loud equipment, wear hearing protection. If you feel silly in noise-canceling headphones while you mow the lawn or vacuum the carpet, remember that you want to be able to hear your child’s laughter. 

Environmental noise requires more creative and thorough solutions. An excellent way to reduce the many negative health effects of urban noise pollution is with soundproof windows. Imagine being able to block the sirens, planes, and honking horns in the refuge of your home.

road construction creating noise pollution

CitiQuiet windows offer you more than protection from intrusive noise. They also save energy and lower heating and cooling costs. Noise pollution doesn’t have to follow you into your home. 

Contact Citiquiet today for a free consultation and take the first step towards reducing outside noise by 95%.   

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