I was going to go with "protrude" but I'm getting told it is not used in this sense and it wouldn't be understood.

It's to describe the situation where the TV is on but you are doing something else and not paying attention, so the sound is like a white noise to you. Then there is something important being said and you realize that suddenly you're hearing what's being said too, even though you didn't consciously make an effort to start listening. So the sensation is as if the sound emerged out of the white noise.

Best alternative I found is "suddenly becomes prominent", which I don't really like. Is there any other way to describe this?

  • 12
    Did you mean "intrude", maybe? Jul 21, 2019 at 16:54
  • 1
    @Cascabel That doesn't seem right. It's really to say that the sound sticks out (Except sound can't stick out) Jul 21, 2019 at 17:15
  • 9
    'Intrude' isn't perfect but it is way better than 'protrude'.
    – Mitch
    Jul 21, 2019 at 17:29
  • 2
    The sound isn't doing anything special. It's your perception that is changing. So the viewpoint is that of your perception, not of the sound's transmission. That's why intrude is used and not protrude. It's also technically correct.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jul 21, 2019 at 20:16
  • 4
    Why can't sound stick out? Lots of idiomatic speech is less than literal. I'd certainly have no problem understanding if you said that the sound stood out to you (in the sense that it stands apart from the rest of the white noise)
    – A C
    Jul 22, 2019 at 4:28

8 Answers 8


It suddenly intruded upon my attention.

From the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, courtesy Phil Sweet:

The extent to which an intruding noise source penetrates the general ambient noise environment in a community, serves as a useful indicator of the likely reaction of the community to that noise source. Available techniques using this approach generally provide a measure of community response based upon the absolute difference in level between the intruding and the ambient noise. Such techniques rarely take account of the percentage time for which the intruding noise is audible within the ambient...

I think part of what is confusing is the use of in a comment.

stick out (intr) 2 word verb

informal to be very easy to notice:

Cambridge online

That is pretty much idiomatic. What is actually happening is that the sound is sticking into your brain, and so intruding.


to go into a place or situation in which you are not wanted or not expected to be:

  • 1
    Thanks Cascabel and Phil Sweet. It fits perfectly in this form - "It suddenly intruded upon my attention." Jul 22, 2019 at 1:52
  • 1
    "... intruded upon my attention" is actually a quite beautiful phrase I hadn't heard until right now. However, intrude carries a negative connotation, so if the thing that suddenly caught your attention was innocuous like, say a car advertisement when you are in the market for a new car, then it is not really intrusive. "... caught my attention" or " ... stuck out" may be more appropriate.
    – djv
    Jul 22, 2019 at 15:59

In answer to your body question, which you expand upon in the tags you choose, there is the transitive multi-word verb jump out at, though I'd rate this as slightly informal.

jump out at: phrasal verb [transitive] ...

jump out at someone: if something jumps out at you, you notice it immediately


So The announcement of the Cricket World Cup result really jumped out at me.

An example from the internet:

Apr '14

The first whole sentence I understood on Radio Cymru: “Mae Mel Smith wedi marw”. Only three words of Welsh, I know, but they had jumped out at me while I was driving along not really listening. Sad for Mel Smith though…

[SSi_Forum_Exciting stages of language learning {helenlindsay}]


I would use interrupt and catch one's attention:


1 : to stop or hinder by breaking in
// interrupted the speaker with frequent questions
2 : to break the uniformity or continuity of
// a hot spell occasionally interrupted by a period of cool weather

grab/catch one's attention
: to cause one to become interested in something
// The book's title grabbed/caught my attention and I picked the book up.

As in:

I had been ignoring the background noise of the TV, when, suddenly, the breaking news story interrupted my thoughts, and caught my attention.


There is obtrude. The verb is not used very much, but the adjectival form, obtrusive, is quite common (and sounds can certainly be called obtrusive).

obtrude verb [ I or T ]

formal uk ​ /əbˈtruːd/ us ​ /əbˈtruːd/

(especially of something unwanted) to make something or to become too noticeable, especially by interrupting:

I don't want to obtrude upon/on her privacy.

Cambridge Dictionary

  • 1
    'inobtrusive' is much more common. 'obtrusive', while not actually being disgruntled, is far from being gruntled.
    – Mitch
    Jul 21, 2019 at 19:08

I know there is already an accepted answer on this and it's a good one, but I thought I might just give my input anyway.

Might I suggest the phrase:

Caught/Grabbed my attention - to cause one to become interested in something

Def. from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary


The sound impinges on your attention, which captures the sense of it suddenly acquiring meaning even though it’s been going on all along.


Although there are some good answers already, I thought I might add this comment.

Although one is not aware of this, one’s brain is continually processing incoming sound. (Otherwise, one would not be able to notice when an interesting or important sound came in.)

“The conversation on the TV caught my attention; it was about the night of the murder.”
[You have only one attention [poor grammar there], but your brain/body continually processes sensory input such as sound [noting that human female brains have hardware for processing two sound sources simultaneously], balance, pain and seen movement. Thus, your attention would be on something else, and your brain would note that something had been said on the TV that was of interest to you (analogous to, for instance, a sudden pain in your toe), and you would then transfer your attention to that.]

In the same vein:
‘Suddenly I noticed one phrase amidst the babble coming out of the TV — “inside the building”.’

Incidentally, this is not the word you want, but… the word “salient” relates to the term “protrude” here; something is salient if it is apt to be noticed (amidst the sea of things that you see/hear/etc. but do not pay attention to). For instance: “The salient thing, to Detective Smith, was that Mary never once mentioned that the painting was worth only about $5.” (This is an example in which something is salient in a more subtle sense — the detective noticed, and thought it important, that something was absent.) A simpler example: “The salient thing for Barbara was that she and Sally had identical dresses on — so much so that she could remember nothing else about that night.”


How about "liminal?" It may be too technical/specialized, but somewhere between the two definitions linked is the suggestion of a gradual awareness that part of your mind has already been processing the sound.

1: of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold : barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response

2 : of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition : IN-BETWEEN, TRANSITIONAL

  • 1
    Also 'supraliminal' for the moment it transitions into consciousness. Jul 22, 2019 at 11:26
  • @PeteKirkham Nice. I was familiar with "subliminal", but "supraliminal" was new to me.
    – user888379
    Jul 22, 2019 at 12:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.