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Every few days to weeks, I hear a very deep humming noise. It's so deep that some older people might not even hear it, but just loud enough to annoy me and sometimes even cause headache. It often lasts for hours and it is audible at different times of the day (but basically never at night). I've gone around the neighbourhood to try to find the source, but couldn't really track it down (mostly because of traffic noise). It probably gets transmitted via the ground. This noise is pretty monotonous, but not just a single frequency (otherwise I could turn my head in a certain direction to no longer hear it).

How could I find the source of this sound? Just relying on my ears alone apparently isn't working. A cheap microphone might not even pick it up. I'm not completely opposed to buying/renting a specialised device, but would like to avoid that for now.

Update April: I've started taking more notes about the details of this humming.
It cleanly turns on and off, there is never any difference in pitch or volume, no variation, slow start or ending or anything like that. So it is almost definitely some kind of machine that causes this.
The hum usually plays for 1-5 hours, at various times of the day and week. Here is a table that shows some of the occurrences (but probably not all, since I sometimes wake up with it already playing, sometimes already listen to music with headphones and don't notice it, sometimes am simply not at home, etc.):

hum timings

The top column is actually empty because I've never heard it after midnight. The next ones are empty because I'm rarely awake at those times. The others are somewhat complete.
The hum often plays for hours at a time, but often (especially after it had been permanently on for a while) it turns off for a few seconds to minutes, then on again for up to a minute, then off again and so on.

Update late May: The humming has not happened for over a month now. The last day in the table above was the last day when I heard it. That's nice for me, but it doesn't answer the question, so I'll not post that as an answer. I've also not marked any answer as accepted so far, because they're all either rather expensive or not applicable in many cases.
Another update on the same day: It's happening again. Yay…

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    Can you use a tone generator app, piano, or other musical keyboard to get some idea of the actual pitch of the tone? BTW, us older folks tend to lose our high frequency hearing, not the lower pitches. I can still hear 16 Hz, but almost nothing about 12 kHz (I could hear 23 kHz when I was 16).
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 15 at 17:55
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    Two sources of hum for me audible indoors but not outdoors a) a pump in water treatment works about 400m away, often heard by night; b) I used to live near an air base and was accustomed to its noise, but one day there was a humming in the house I could not identify. Outside – nothing, indoors – a disturbing hum. About 20 minutes later an air show began that I had not know about, and I figured out the humming had been caused by one or more aircraft quite some distance away, circling to await their cue. Mar 15 at 20:28
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    Aircon - the bearings failing on an air conditioning fan unit tend to produce a deep hum. Only took us 3 years to work it out. Mar 16 at 6:33
  • It seems to be between 20 and 30 Hz, probably closer to 30. Today it started before 12:55, not sure how long before. It does get quieter when covering my ears, so it's not something in my head. I've tried to record it with 3 microphones. If it's possible for them to record it, I should have that now. But it might not work, because it's pretty quiet. Not sure how to pinpoint the decibels, since any such indicator in e.g. videos loses meaning on different speakers/headphones and settings. It's definitely below conversation volume, maybe <10, it's around the same volume as my laptop fan when idle Mar 23 at 12:16
  • At 13:18, it stopped, then started again, then stopped, started, stopped and started again, in under a minute in total. Mar 23 at 12:21
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Why don't you try and use a cheap microphone and move around your neighborhood whilst recording it with an app? You should be able to 'see' the 'sound waves' on most apps, otherwise you could listen to the recording with full volume.

Otherwise you could:

  1. Buy some decent headphones to keep out the noise
  2. Take a stroll or something when the noise appears -- it will take your mind off it and might even be good for you!
  3. If these don't work you could buy some sort of soundproofing foam for your chair to sit on (if your chair-legs might break the foam put something wide to distribute the weight). This will hopefully prevent most tremors, for the could be just one large vibrating solid to amplify the sound.

Good luck!

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    In some cases, there seems to be a mysterious hum that cannot be found. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hum
    – Ryan_L
    Mar 15 at 17:41
  • @Ryan_L it might be from any of the reasons listed on that wiki page!
    – Arale
    Mar 15 at 18:20
  • @Ryan_L "30-40Hz, was found to only be heard during cool weather with a light breeze, and often early in the morning. These noises were often confined to a 10-kilometre wide area" That might actually be all correct for this case, I think it's more common in the morning, but can happen at various times (today for example around 16:00). 40Hz seems about right, but it's hard to remember hours later (I forgot to check mails on my second account regularly today). That time when I was searching for it outside, it seemed to maybe come from the area of the train station, but I was very unsure. Mar 16 at 2:49
  • You'll need a directional microphone (shotgun, parabolic, super cardioid, etc.) to find low frequency sources which have very little directionality compared to midrange frequencies. They usually are not cheap however.
    – Stan
    Mar 16 at 15:10
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My suggestion for you is to try to "crowd-source" information on the source of the humming. I'm assuming you live in a neighborhood with hundreds or thousands of people, and that you are not uniquely sensitive to the humming. If you can get your neighbors to respond to a survey asking them to record times at which they have experienced similar humming, then you can locate the source of the humming as the epicenter of the positive responses. It seems likely that many people will be insensitive to the humming, but on the other hand many others have likely noticed it too.

If you can join forces with a researcher at a local university, some or all of the cost of the survey might be absorbed into a research grant, and the response rate will likely be higher than if you just sent out surveys as a private citizen.

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This doesn't really answer how one could methodically find the source of something like this (so I won't mark it as accepted), but I did happen to find the most likely source a few hours ago: A Diesel engine of an old, non-electric freight train, running in standby.
I was driving my bike over a bridge that one of these trains was standing under, so I was able to hear it much louder (ouch, instant headache) and clearer, together with the rest of the frequency spectrum of its sound, which normally got drowned out by street noise whenever I was trying to find the sound near where I live.
This definitely explains why I thought that it might have come from the vague direction of the train station and it also confirms my suspicion that it was some kind of machine (because the sound only ever turns on or off cleanly, no gradual change in volume or pitch).

The only thing I can do now, apart from moving, is to contact the company that owns these trains and ask whether these train engines could be turned off completely when the train is not moving. That would also be better for the climate. I bet they have some kind of reason to run it in standby, so I don't estimate my chances to be that high, but it's worth a try.

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  • I’m glad to know you identified the source of the humming. Good luck dealing with it. There may be local by-laws you can invoke to help. Oct 24 at 1:36
  • In retrospect you might have tried a network of seismometers to identify the origin of the humming. Here is an Instructable using Slinky Jr etc. instructables.com/Seismometer You could get a network of local schools interested in the project which might provide enough different sites to triangulate the origin. Oct 24 at 1:39
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    If non of the other answers worked for you, please accept the best, including your own, so this question gets a 'close'. I think your answer is good enough to accept, as you do describe how you found the source.
    – Willeke
    Oct 24 at 9:38

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