What Do Cicadas Sound Like? Listen to the Loudest Singing Insects on Earth

It was early morning on April 29 when Jakob Dwight ’s grandmother, Valeria Richards Maye, died in Alabama. It was that day, too, when he heard the cicadas sing near her home and it comforted him.

“I don’t know if they were out a few nights before,” he said. “I did not hear them the night before.”

It felt like some kind of connection to his grandmother: Describing the sound as almost like a ray-gun in a science-fiction movie or a thin metallic sheet rippling, Mr. Dwight said in an interview on Wednesday that he felt touched listening to the droning “in the way that if people lose a loved one, they tend to have magical experiences or at least imbue things in nature with kind of that spirit of the loved one.” He would go on to record the cicadas’ song the day after her funeral.

This spring, as two broods of cicadas emerge in a rare simultaneous event to produce a sound as loud as an airplane’s, Americans are feeling connected to nature and rejoicing — or covering their ears — as they listen to the song in their backyards.

While some find the buzzes, chirps and trills soothing or exciting, for others, the bugs are annoying or irritating. In one South Carolina county, residents even called the sheriff to report the strange, thunderous roaring.

“These periodical cicada songs are magical,” said Wil Hershberger, a co-author of the book “The Songs of Insects.” “They are only heard when a brood emerges, and they are distinctly different from other annual cicada songs that we can hear every year.”

This year, the slight overlap of two broods makes them even more so. “In some locations, the unique convergence of 13-year songs and 17-year songs creates a truly extraordinary auditory experience,” he said.

Among the 17-year-cycle cicadas, known as Brood XIII, Mr. Hershberger said, there are three species, each with its own distinct and captivating song.

The most numerous is probably the Magicicada septendecim, he said, “with its awesome wee-oo song.” That species also has a unique mating song. “These enthusiastic, energetic songs seem to be liked by the females,” Mr. Hershberger said.

There is also M. septendecula, communicating in a “quite unique” song that consists of “a series of high-pitched buzzes that become more rapid and then end in a series of chirp-like sounds.” Then there is the M. cassini, whose song is a ticking that becomes an upward buzz.

For the 13-year-cycle cicada species, Brood XIX, which cover the most ground this year, John R. Cooley, a biology professor at the University of Connecticut, said some songs are similar to the 17-year-cycle insects.

In general, the songs of the Magicicada tredecula species are rhythmic frequency sweeps, while the songs of the Magicicada tredecassini species are a series of ticks followed by a frequency sweep, Professor Cooley said. He also noted that species can be active at different times of day.

Male cicadas generally sing to mate (while female cicadas respond with the flick of a wing) using a special organ called a tymbal, Mr. Hershberger said, which has a covering like the head of a drum, and one can be found on each side of the forward abdomen. The male cicada uses a strong muscle to pull them in, causing the membranes to collapse along ridges and creating the sound.

Cicadas are the loudest singing insects on Earth, Mr. Hershberger said, noting that “individuals can produce sounds in the 90 decibel range — that’s as loud as a jet engine.”

“If you are going to be close to a chorus of males in full song, I would wear earplugs to protect your hearing,” Mr. Hershberger said.

In Cicadas 2024, a public Facebook group with more than 10,000 members, users have remarked on the humming roar, describing it as endearing or deafening.

The buzz and chirps of periodical cicadas are nothing new — those sounds have long inspired artists and musicians.

Mr. Dwight, a painter and artist who uses sound elements in his work, is unsure how he’ll use his recordings of Alabama cicadas. He sees himself as “a naturalist who’s aiming to help bring out the magic of the experience of nature.”

He imagines whatever he creates will be “on the poetic, the grieving side.”

The emergence of Brood X in 1970 inspired Bob Dylan’s “Day of the Locusts,” in which he wrote that “the locusts sang such a sweet melody.” In 2021, the pop star Lorde said in an interview with Apple Music that she recorded cicadas to help capture the feeling of a New Zealand summer for her song “Solar Power.”

Some find the buzzing sounds to be meditative.

On meditation apps, including Insight Timer, a popular free meditation app that has been downloaded 28 million times, recorded cicada sounds help people connect with nature. Insight Timer has 19 tracks in its meditation and sound library that feature the sound of cicadas, said Maddy Gerrard, the app’s editor in chief.

Jonathan Adams, a musician known as Sonic Yogi who records therapeutic music and meditations, said in an email that he uses bird and bug sounds in his meditation audio “because they signal different cycles of the day and the seasons.”

“These are naturally indicators of these energy shifts in the day,” he said, which can help cue the rhythms in the body.

But it’s not all songs and sound baths: The red-eyed insects can be a real nuisance to some.

In South Carolina, the Newberry County Sheriff’s Office posted a notice on social media after several residents complained “about a noise in the air that sounds like a siren, or a whine, or a roar.”

“The sound is cicadas,” the sheriff’s office said, noting that “although to some, the noise is annoying, they pose no danger to humans or pets. Unfortunately it is the sounds of nature.”

Derek Kinkade, the chief meteorologist for the ABC affiliate in Columbus, Ga., used his Facebook page to ask people to stop calling the police on the cicadas.

“We’ve done a hundred stories and posts on them from winter to now,” he said. “Other news sources have too. It’s bugs. The sound is bugs.”

For some, the sound can be overstimulating. Neurodivergent children and adults, including people with autism, may find cicadas’ incessant droning less memorable as a sound of summer and more like a waking nightmare.

Dr. Nathan Carroll, associate chief resident psychiatrist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, said those with decreased sound tolerance, also known as auditory sensitivity, can find the constant trilling overwhelming.

Dr. Carroll said that of about 5.5 million people with autism in the United States, it is estimated that between 60 and 90 percent have auditory sensitivity. To help those experiencing discomfort, he suggested taking them inside and drowning out the noise with the TV or giving them earplugs or headphones to use. “Don’t minimize it,” he said. “Validate it as much as possible.”

For those without auditory sensitivity, remember there are a few weeks left in this rare dual emergence.

Mr. Hershberger recommends that if you can, you should “relax, listen, and enjoy this rare sonic treasure.”

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