Motorcycles stir the soul in such an elemental way. There’s a level of engagement with a motorcycle thats on another plane versus all but the most special of cars. Riding is, in many ways, an outright assault on the senses. You don’t just use all your limbs riding a motorcycle; you use your whole body, leaning into turns, transferring weight to where it’s needed. In many ways, motorcycles are the two-piece band of motor culture - the stripped down essence of motor culture.
For bikers, the composition of noises from internal combustion motorcycle engines is a concert. It is often the only form of aural entertainment one can have while riding, so it better be desirable.
So we comprised a list of our favorite motorcycle sounds. Sure, the notes may change depending on whether a given bike has OEM or aftermarket manufacturer exhaust. But, subjectively speaking, regardless of muffler configuration, we think these bikes sound good.
As we always say in these pieces, it’s impossible to include everything – and there’s a lot of omissions just for the sake of editorial space. But here’s what we like. Tell us what you think.
The Ducati Water-cooled V-Twins
This spans a lot of Ducati models (888 through 1299), but they share a heartbeat. For most Ducatisti, the jingle of the dry clutch is part of the experience, while for others it can be an audible nuisance. No matter, these modern-era 90-degree V-Twin Ducati engines with pipes and a rattling dry clutch are unmistakable. They are the antithesis of the high-strung inline four liter-bike, with the twins carrying some bass in their growl. Riding one of these high-performance V-Twins under full-load throttle is a visceral, ground-shaking event that will tattoo your brain.
The British Parallel-Twins
Just as Harley Davidson holds the intellectual property (literally!) on the quintessential sound of the air-cooled 45-degree V-Twin, Triumph, Norton, BSA and other British motorcycle manufacturers are the true forefathers the Parallel-Twin engine. From Triumph’s original Speed Twin to the last Norton Commando, the Brit Parallel-Twins produce a tone that’s more sporting and athletic than the odd-firing V-Twin. Just hearing the sound is like a trip back in time.
If the sound of a V4 does it for you, then the oval piston V4 would be like the mother-of-all-V4 sounds. Originally designed in the late 1970s as a four-stroke competitor to the 500cc two-stroke engines dominating Grand Prix motorcycle racing, the oval-piston V-Four engine is decidedly unique. It packs eight valves per cylinder and eight connecting rods. For all intents and purposes, it’s a V8. While it was never able to match the lightweight two-strokers in GP competition, it provided a sound like nothing else.
The Triumph Inline-Triple
The wail of a modern Triumph three-cylinder is the kind of sound you can’t help but fall in love with. It falls somewhere between the throaty tones of a parallel-twin at low rpm with the high-pitched, frenetic scream of an inline four once it gets spinning. In doing so it makes a sound all its own. From the original BSA Rocket lll and Triumph X75 Hurricane, to the racing Trident, to Triumph’s latest Street and Speed Triples, an Inline-Triple makes a sound like no other. There’s just something about a bike with an odd cylinder count.
The Ducati Desmosedici
The Desmosedici is a race bike in street trim. It is raw, unfettered performance. Thumb the starter and everyone in ear-chit will know it instantly. Even at idle the V4 rumbles with a note that tells the world it is serious business. If you’ve ever attended a MotoGP race, you understand how loud these racebikes are. Now imagine a street-legal version and the sound should start to make more sense. It’s intense and fast. There’s a seriousness in it’s tone that essentially challenges whether you’re worthy of the bike.
As you likely know from our other articles, we have an irrational love of the Kawasaki air-cooled two-stroke triples. Frankly, the notes made by any two-stroke triple is one of the most animated, lively noises made by mechanical means there is. The Kawasaki triples embody that. And somehow they do it in a very different way than the tone delivered by the Triumph triples. There’s a certain 1500cc two-stroke triple I have had the chance to pilot that I am convinced is the devil’s personal engine judging by the sounds it makes, but that’s a story for another day.
The best description of the appeal of the MV Agusta Three might be the description Chris Brown gave to the website Visor Down. "A couple of years ago at Spa I went out on Kenny Roberts’ Yamaha OW48 YZR 500. Just as I trickled out the pit lane, Agostini pulled out in front of me and pointed at his back wheel. He was riding the MV and after 3 laps I nearly went off because I was listening to the bike in front of me, I couldn’t focus on anything else. It was like being serenaded onto the rocks by the mermaids. It utterly mesmerised me and that was whilst riding a world championship winning Yamaha GP bike!”. Enough said.
The simple symphony of the pursuit of mechanical perfection. You can hear the precision of the Honda engineers in the notes of this 6 cylinder 250 cc masterpiece. True mechanical music.
The Yamaha RD bikes
There’s something uniquely enjoyable about the burble generated by a two-stroke parallel twin. Once they’re warm, a few stabs on the throttle clears the pipes provides a great raspy resonance that tells you there is a nice power band in your hand. The best part is knowing that, once you achieve a certain rpm, you’re going to climb the curve. The notes will elevate much more quickly. The bike will try to leave you. And you’ll love it.
The Honda RC149
If the R166 is the sound of mechanical perfection, then it’s older brother, the RC149 is the psychotic genius that could snap at any minute. Again, Chris Wilson sums it up beautifully: "Everyone gets all horny about the 6 cylinder RC166 sound. The problem is they’re too smooth, almost too nice and sweet. The 5 cylinder bike just sounds like everything is going wrong, but in a good way. My friend is a current formula 1 engineer and when describing what the bike was whilst standing beside it, he took a look at the engine. The Japanese engineers fired it up and started blipping the throttle, taking her to around 16,000rpm; he jumped back and said: “It’s gonna blow, it’s gonna blow!” The guy who spends his life designing engines couldn’t understand the mechanical noise that this bike made! When the Japanese engineers explained how the motor works, my friend said he couldn’t make an engine like that these days. The mechanical noise, so much tension and stress in the engine like a balloon about to burst, but then of course it runs fine! That engine is the epitome of a race engine, any racing machine must frighten you. If it doesn’t frighten you then it’s not a race bike."
The Yamaha R1 Crossplane Crank
While I have no disdain for the standard inline 4, the modern-era water-cooled versions leave me wanting more character. The 2009 and newer venerable R1 has used a crossplane crank that does just that. It supplies a mix of V-twin pull with an inline 4 scream up top. The sounds of the exhaust notes are just glorious. The crossplane design in the R1 also makes for a straight, smooth torque curve and super quick revving. It stands apart from the ubiquity.
The 1960 MV Agusta 500cc GP
Another MV Agusta GP bike? Yes. This particular MV Agusta 4-cylinder pre-dates the Three. It is a 70hp 500cc GP bike from the late 1950’s. It’s sound is deep, relentless, and a bit evil. Even better, It can still haul ass with the best of them—just ask John Surtees.
It’s very interesting how the transition from air to water-cooled often has such a significant impact on the character of the sounds an engine makes. Ducati is one of those cases. One would never mistake the earlier air-cooled 90 degree V-Twins for the more aggressive and powerful sounds of their younger water-cooled brethren. The air-cooled versions have a bit more lope to their soundtrack, and yet not in a Harley kind of way. There’s a decidedly mechanical pitch to it. It’s the kind of sound that you’d recognize as a Ducati as it approached you, even if you couldn’t see.
The Honda CBX
What would happen if you took the glorious sounds created by the RC166, and subjected it to scientific experimentation - Then sold it to the public? This. This is what would happen.
The Moto Guzzi Otto 500 cc V8
Start with a small-displacement V8 engine that can achieve high-pitch rpm range. That alone can sound good as it is. Then give it a flat-plane crank. A truly one-of-a-kind song.