Sound is invisible and depicting it in images is even more challenging than photographs of wind that I have written about previously. From the sound of music to the stress producing noise of an early morning garbage truck, images that show ‘sound’ can be indispensable in promotional messages and ads as well as being essential to certain businesses and non-profits

© Agg

Without a doubt the most famous photo showing sound is this one by Steve Steigman for Maxwell cassettes in the 1980’s. The image was part of a very successful ad campaign and went on to become one of the most popular posters of all time. It's power comes from Steigman's brilliant idea to make the power of sound visible as if it were wind.

Photos water lapping at the shore on vacation retreats or certain kinds of music can soothe and relax. The crashing of waves is an overwhelming sound that can invigorate or frighten. Softly falling rain gives a peaceful aura to an image while the crack of lightning is almost heard in a dramatic image of a bolt of white light cutting down though the picture. The challenge is getting the sound dimension into the image so that the viewer recognizes that the image is about sound.

© Vukvuk

Images that illustrate the sounds of music are used by orchestras and local theaters in ads and fund raising brochures. Music themed graphics are great for invitations or cards. The best way to get across the idea of animal sounds is to show an open beak or mouth or a snarly, toothy growl. Graphics of wolves howling at the moon maybe a cliché but it is a very apt representation of sound.

Make tension visible on the faces of models in busy (noisy) city street scenes. An image of a driver leaning on the horn drives that message home. Jackhammers or busy construction sites shot with a bystander’s irritated look in the frame is a very LOUD picture as is an image of a jet plane taking off. Leaf blowers are so noisy and disturbing that the City of Los Angeles banned the use of them within city limits years ago. That’s a good prop to show irritating neighborhood noise along with a barking dog at the fence.

© Ariusz

For some the lack of sound in their life is deafening. It can be difficult for images to show deafness and Dreamstime could use images of individuals using signing as a way of communicating individually or from a podium at a large lecture.

Just thinking about the kinds of sounds that we might encounter should quickly generate fresh ideas. As you think about the ideas in the list below visualize what you can put in the image to evoke the message of noise.

An image of a tree falling in the forest is ‘silent’ unless you can also show a reaction to the noise. It all goes back to the old speculation: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?” Actually it doesn’t as sound only exists once the waves are perceived so says the Internet! Now if there were a person standing by the tree when it hit the ground with their ears covered…it would be an EARSPLITTING picture.

Keyword tips: Words that identify sounds within an image are easy to forget as you concentrate on the nouns in the image. So keep your eyes open for pictures that fit the feelings of ‘quiet’ and ‘loud’.


© Joruba

Construction site

© Vukvuk

Noisy street scene


Child screaming or crying in a restaurant


Jet plane taking off


Birds singing (Bird with open beak)

Seal lions barking (my personal early morning wake up call)

Loud television

People’s reactions to sound Obviously plugging the ears are obvious…but covered head in a pillow. Looking bored around a yakking person.


Howling wind

Breaking glass

Garbage truck

Noisy party

Too loud cell phone talker

Barking dog

Angry yelling person

Noise blocking: earphones

Person with hearing aid


Helicopters low flying

Moving ambulance or police car with lights on

Person with hand cupping ear as they try to listen over loud noises

Person playing a musician instrument in a house by an open window

Rock band in the garage

Loud leaf blower or other yard machine

Alarm clock

Loud Sneeze

Ear protectors on workers at airport or construction site

Photo credits: Agg, Ariusz Nawrocki, Bowie15, Dbajurin, Joruba, Ken Hurst, Ron Sumners, Branislav Ostojic.

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September 27, 2008


great article! thanks!!

September 24, 2008


Thanks for using one of my images Ellen! Interesting article - for my day job I'm a musician so blog is especially relevant to me.

September 24, 2008


Great ideas thanks Ellen!

September 24, 2008


reproducing sound in images can be very challenging.
I think it's easy to fall into the usual clichè for this kind of images, but probably is a theme very much interesting for illustrators.
Thanks for the ideas!

September 24, 2008


Very good article, the widening of our ideas.

September 24, 2008


Good inspirational ideas! Thanks.

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