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Motorcycle Music - Know Your Engine Sounds

For me, there’s nothing quite like the sound of a motorcycle with a good set of pipes, pulling through the gears, charging through some twisties or doing a nice flyby. It’s like music to my ears. Some days, when I have been most obsessed, I have found a good youtube clip of someone riding their bike and played it on my iphone, just listening to it on the way to work!

About a year ago I stumbled upon a great article titled ‘Top Ten Best Sounding Motorcycle Engines’ by ( It included a brief introduction to each engine/motorcycle and then had a sound clip of it. I got my girlfriend to test me blind with the sound clips and I got 9/10! I think I missed the MotoGP V4 Ducati – just because I don’t hear it on the streets.

I loved this idea so much so I decided to make one of my own. However, rather than making a list of the best sounding motorcycles (which there are too many), I wanted to make a list of the best sounding engine configurations under their own titles. Exhaust design, cam specifications, stroke/bore ratios, ignition timing etc will all play a role in the sound outcome from a motorcycle, but nothing will make a four cylinder Honda sound like a V-twin Harley and visa versa. That is because the engine configuration itself plays the biggest role in producing an exhaust note. This article is very non-technical; if you want to know more about the different engine layouts and theirs pros and cons, do some further reading. This is all about the sounds and these are my opinions only – I am no authority on the subject at all. I have also tried to make the list with only street bikes, simply becuase there would be too many otherwise and the bikes you will see here, you are more likely to hear yourself on the street sometime. Here comes the list in order from most favourite, to most favourite (I love them all haha).

Engine configuration: Inline 3 or otherwise known as a ‘triple’. This engine configuration has been used by many manufacturers – Aprilia, Yamaha, Triumph, MV Augusta and Laverda, just to name a few. My favourite of these however, is the air cooled ones – the Yamaha XS750 and XS850 models and the original Triumph Trident/BSA Rocket Three. Even an exotic upside down air-cooled triple called the Nembo 32. For some reason, they have a brutal rawness about them. They sound like angry beasts! When liquid cooling was introduced, they just started sounding too refined, almost turbine-like. When mentioning motorcycle and triple in the same sentence, one should not forget perhaps the most notorious of all – the Kawasaki 2-stroke triple series. Just listen to the insanity.

Ignore the silly rock music in the beginning and wait for this guy and his nice Yamaha XS850 cafe racer to really wind it on (skip to 30 seconds in):

Now here is the push rod British version, the Triumph Trident:

The exotic Nembo 32 sounds like a WW1 fighter plane! (skip to a minute in):

And now the widow maker Kawasaki 750 H2 (skip to a minute and a half in):

Engine configuration: Inline 6. Straight 6 engines have been used in cars for many years – where there is room! But in the 1970s and 80s, motorcycle manufacturers started trying to squeeze them into motorcycle frames. The Benelli Sei series, the Honda CBX series and the Kawasaki Z1300 series. These engines sound like Formula One cars when they are on full song. They make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. From inline triples, to inline 6s, you might have noticed there is something about the sound produced from engines with cylinders in multiples of 3. Other intoxicating engine sounds with multiples of three cylinders are flat six engines and V12s.

Some really nice fly-bys on a Honda CBX1000:

And the big behemoth the Kawasaki Z1300:

Engine configuration: V-twin. This might be the most famous motorcycle engine configuration due to its ties with Harley Davidson and Ducati, two premium brands with an incredibly loyal customer base. In some ways, it is the perfect layout to power a two-wheeled machine. There are so many different variations of this engine design that all produce very different and unique exhaust notes. Staying on topic however, I have broken them into three main 'sound' groups: Narrow angle V-twins – between 40 and 55 degrees, mid angle V-twins – between 55 and 80 degrees, and the 90 degree V-twins.

Narrow 'V-twin' one, the original Indian Scout (not by Polaris):

Narrow 'V-twin' two, the Harley 'Pan Head' (skip to a minute and a half in):

Narrow 'V-twin' three, the Buell Lightning:

Mid angle 'V-twin' one, the Aprilia RSV Mille:

Mid angle 'V-twin' two, the Britten V1000:

Mid angle 'V-twin' three, the Motor Morini 350 Sport:

90 degree 'V-twin' one, the Ducati Monster (skip to a minute in for the real music)::

90 degree 'V-twin' two, the Honda VTR1000:

90 degree 'V-twin' three, the Moto Guzzi 1200 Sport:

90 degree 'V-twin' four (can you tell I like 90 degree V-Twins?), the Suzuki SV1000

Engine configuration: Parallel Twin. Nothing is as synonymous with British motorcycles as the parallel twin – it was used in many of the famous Triumph, BSA and Norton models. For some, including me, there isn’t another engine that sounds more motorcycle than this. At this point it must be said that these engines had a 360 degree crankshaft configuration – which give these bikes their distinctive sounds. There are a few other variations which also sound fantastic – the 270 degree crankshaft configuration gives an almost V-twin like sound, as does the 315 degree configuration. The only one I dislike, and I will upset a few people here, is the 180 degree configuration (think 1970’s Honda CB350’s and the modern day Kawasaki ER6). No matter what set of pipes you put on one of these, it will always sound like a wet fart. That being said, for some reason, it just works for 2-strokes – sounding like an angry buzz saw.

One of the originals - The Triumph Bonneville (360 degree crank):

The Japanese version, the Yamaha XS650 (360 degree crank):

Believe it or not, the same bike model but with a re-phased 277 degree crank, the Yamaha XS650 again:

Now another Yamaha but with a 270 degree crank, the Yamaha TRX850. This video is very long and is one of the ones I listen to on the way to work – a favourite. But you get the idea after only a minute or so:

For something different, the Husqvarna Nuda 900 witha 315 degree crank:

And finally, the buzz saw 2-stroke Yamaha RD350 (with 180 degree crankshaft):

Engine configuration: Boxer Twin – a configuration that is strongly connected to BMW motorcycles. The sound is also distinctly motorcycle and has its own odd but pleasant beat.

The BMW R90:

Engine configuration: V4. This configuration was used in a few oddball cars over the years but really, is most suited to motorcycles – and this is beginning to show in the MotoGP paddock with more and more manufacturers choosing the V4 as the preferred choice and perhaps ideal engine layout. It was also an engine layout used in some 2-stroke racers before the 4-strokes took over but was not widely available on the street.

The Honda VFR (there are many, here is one):

The Motus MST:

The Aprilia RSV4:

Engine configuration: Single Cylinder. The most basic and perhaps most romantic of motorcycle engines for their mechanical simplicity and heart beat like exhaust pulses. The difference between a 2-stoke single and a 4-stroke single is very pronounced, but both are appealing in their own right.

One of the classics, the Norton Manx:

The big, famous Japanese single, the Yamaha SR500 (very long video but great sound):

A more modern take, the Husqvarna SMR510:

And the almighty Honda CR500 (ok this video is of a home made hybrid, but the engine noise is spot on and the best I found):

Engine configuration: Inline 4. I am going to cause some major controversy here and go out and say that I don’t like the sound of these. For me, this engine is the engine that powers every Honda Civic and every Toyota Corolla out of Japan. It doesn’t have a place in a motorcycle chassis, where emotions are meant to be stirred. They’re just too bland - no soul or character - and when wound up sound either like a home appliance or a screaming cat. That being said, there is one that has a beautiful song, and that is the Yamaha R1 (2009 onwards). This is because of the cross-plane crankshaft Yamaha went with. It has more of a throaty V8 sound and it is lovely.

Yamaha cross-plane R1:

Others. There are many more oddball engine configurations, and a few more common ones too, but the ones listed here are the ones that are fun to be familiar with because if you learn them well, you will know what bike is coming up behind you before you even see it. If you want to hear more, I have created a playlist on Youtube called Motorcycle Engine Sounds and it has over 120 videos. Obsessed? Definitely, but I know I am not alone!

Entire Playlist:

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