The novel centers upon the Ogata family of Kamakura, and its events are witnessed from the perspective of its aging patriarch, Shingo, a businessman close to retirement who works in Tokyo. Shingo is experiencing temporary lapses of memory, recalling strange and disturbing dreams upon waking, and hearing sounds, including the titular noise which awakens him from his sleep, "like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth." Shingo takes the sound to be an omen of his impending death.
Shingo observes and questions his relations with his family members, his wife Yasuko, his philandering son Shuichi, his daughter-in-law Kikuko, and his married daughter Fusako, who has left her husband and returned to her family home with her two young daughters. Shingo realizes that he has not truly been an involved and loving husband and father, and perceives the marital difficulties of his adult children to be the fruit of his poor parenting.
To this end, he begins to question his secretary, Tanizaki Eiko, about his son's affair, as she knows Shuichi socially and is friends with his mistress, and he quietly puts pressure upon Shuichi to quit his infidelity. At the same time, he becomes aware that he has begun to experience a fatherly yet erotic attachment to Kikuko, whose quiet suffering in the face of her husband's unfaithfulness, physical attractiveness, and filial devotion contrast strongly with the bitter resentment and homeliness of his own daughter, Fusako. Complicating matters in his own marriage is the infatuation he once possessed for Yasuko's older sister, more beautiful than Yasuko, who died as a young woman but now appears in his dreams along with other dead friends and associates.
The novel can be interpreted as a meditation of aging and its attendant decline, and coming to terms with one's mortality. Even as Shingo regrets not being present for his family and blames himself for his children's failing marriages, the natural world comes alive for him in a whole new way, provoking meditations on life, love, and companionship.