What various weird computer noises mean for your machine

Your guide to what all your computer's buzzing, grinding, or rattling noises might actually mean.
A hard drive cloaked in shadow.
If your computer is making a rattling noise, the disk might be the issue. benjamin lehman / Unsplash

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This story has been updated. It was originally published on August 30, 2020.

No PC is truly silent, but your computer shouldn’t be louder than your lawnmower. If you have to turn up your music just to drown out the whirring or grinding noises your machine is making, you may want to look into that—it could be the first signal of some serious problems.

Knowing how to tell different hard drive noises apart, and learning what they might mean, can save your computer. Or at least give you an unequivocal pass to buy a new one.

Your computer is making a clicking or grinding noise

Let’s start with the most worrisome sound. If your computer is making a clicking or grinding sound, or any sort of low-pitched buzzing noise, you should stop what you’re doing and check the hard drive. This sound could indicate a dying disk—do not ignore it.

To check your drive’s health, I recommend a third-party tool like CrystalDiskInfo (Windows) or DriveDx (macOS). Fire up the program, click on each of your drives in the menu, and make sure they’re all listed as “good.” If the application indicates your drive is anything less than that, you should back up all your data as soon as possible. You may still have some time to do so—occasionally a drive marked “caution” can still run for years, but if it’s making noises, the end may be nigh. 

Once all your files are safe, consider replacing your drive with an SSD—not only will it likely last longer, but it’ll make your computer run much faster. If your hard drives are healthy, take the incident as a warning and avoid any unpleasant surprises by backing up your data regularly. Don’t neglect this: like living creatures, all hard drives die one day.

One you’ve ruled out your hard drive as the culprit, you’ll need to dig a little deeper to find what’s making the clicking sound. If your computer still has a DVD drive, it could be in the process of failing, and in need of repair or replacement.

Finally, in a lot of desktop PCs, a clicking noise could just mean a cable has gotten too close to a fan and is getting hit repeatedly by the blades. If you’re comfortable with a screwdriver, open up your PC and make sure the fans are clear of obstructions.

Your computer is making loud whirring noises

If there’s one sound every computer user knows well, it’s the loud whoosh that comes from an overzealous fan running at full speed. On a desktop PC, this will likely be low-to-medium pitch like the video above, and on a laptop, it could be higher-pitched and much more annoying. The smaller the fan, the louder and higher pitched that noise will be.

[Related: Hot computers are slow and dangerous. Here’s how to cool yours down.]

If you’re hearing this, there’s a very good chance your machine just needs some cooling adjustment. You might also want to check your hard drive’s health, just in case, since a drive spinning up and down repeatedly could create a similar sound. Finally, in older computers, check to see if there’s a disc spinning in the DVD drive—sometimes those can be obnoxiously loud even if they’re working properly.

If the fans in your computer are indeed too loud, start by opening Task Manager in Windows (Ctrl+Shift+Esc) or Activity Monitor in macOS (under Applications > Utilities) and see if any programs are taking up a large portion of your CPU. If your computer’s working hard, the fans will work hard to cool it, so you may have a program running in the background you forgot about, or malware eating up resources without you knowing. Close the offending program or run a malware scan to see if that helps.

If your computer is idle and the fan is still making noise, it could be overheating. A program like Core Temp (Windows) or Fanny (macOS) can tell you if your CPU is running hot. As a ballpark, if you aren’t running anything strenuous and your CPU is 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius) or higher, I’d say that’s abnormal, and will likely cause excessive fan noise. 

If you’re using your laptop in bed, make sure to put a tray or something solid under it—your clothes, skin, or blankets might be preventing the system from cooling off, making the fans work harder and louder. The same happens with accumulated dust, so give the fan grilles a few passes with a dust blower, or better yet, an electric duster. If you feel comfortable, you might even want to open up your machine and wipe the dust off the fan with a clean microfiber cloth.

Finally, if you have a desktop PC—especially one you built yourself—you may just need to adjust the fan curves in the BIOS. Some of your fans may be running at 75 or 100 percent all the time by default, which is unnecessary. Or, the curves may be set in a weird spot that causes the fans to constantly ramp up for a few seconds to cool the CPU, but then they ramp back down, allowing the CPU to get hot again. Press Delete as your computer starts to enter the BIOS screen, and look for any fan control settings you can play with—try a lower setting, but don’t set them too low, lest your temperatures get too high.

Sounds coming from your speakers, even when you aren’t playing anything

Put your ear closer to the sound—is it coming from inside your computer or is it coming from the speakers? Speakers are supposed to make sound, but if you’re hearing noise from them even when your computer isn’t playing audio, something might be wrong. 

Make sure the speaker cable is plugged all the way into your PC. You’ll usually hear a click that tells you the cable is fully connected, but sometimes you have to really shove it to get that last millimeter in. If that doesn’t work, you can troubleshoot your speakers by plugging them into another device (like your phone) to see if the sound persists. The problem could be in your speaker’s cable, or it could just be feedback from the internals of your PC, in which case a USB sound card, also known as a DAC, might help.

[Related: 12 ways to make your computer look and sound better]

You might also be experiencing a ground loop, in which case a ground loop isolator can reduce the noise. I’ve even had speakers that picked up faint radio signals due to poorly shielded cables, which is a remarkably spooky experience.

Ultimately, there are so many things that can cause unwanted noise from speakers that we could probably write a whole article on the subject. But if you play around with your connections, you may be able to narrow down the source, and replace the offending component.

Your computer is making buzzing or screeching noises

If none of the above have fixed the problem, but you’re still hearing a buzzing sound, it could be just about anything. Heck, if they’re mild enough, any of the above problems could be described as “buzzing,” so check your hard drive and running processes before you move on.

Once you’ve discarded all the scenarios above, my first guess would be that you’re experiencing coil whine—one of my least favorite noises in computing, since there’s often little you can do about it.

Coil whine happens when the coils in your components start vibrating at just the right frequency to start making a very annoying noise. It can be anywhere from a low-pitched buzz to a high pitched squeal, and often happens when your computer is under load. If you can pinpoint the source, you might be able to mitigate the noise, at least to some degree. For example, in gaming PCs, coil whine commonly comes from the graphics card when it’s doing a lot of work, in which case you can decrease your graphics settings or turn on VSync to lighten the load. I’ve also heard coil whine on a lot of power adapters—if you move your laptop or monitor’s power brick further away, it may not be as annoying. Some laptop manufacturers may even offer other power adapters without the old school “brick” that may coil whine less. In other cases, there’s nothing you can do, and you’ll have to suffer through the noise.

If you aren’t convinced the buzzing sound is coil whine, you might also want to look back at your computer’s fans. If they are vibrating against the steel case of your desktop PC, some rubber dampeners may help stop the sound. Your fans may also need lubrication, so a small drop of sewing machine oil in the bearing of an old fan can make it run like new again. And if you have one of the ever-so-trendy all-in-one liquid cooling units in your gaming PC, make sure it’s mounted properly, and check the manual to see if the pump is adjustable—turning the pump speed down could lessen the buzzing sound it makes.