Many adaptively beneficial states of form, behaviour and physiology are absent in large parts of the evolutionary tree of life. Although the causes of these absences can never be fully known, insights into the possibilities and limitations of adaptive evolution can be gained by examining the conditions that would be necessary for the forbidden phenotypes to evolve. Here, the case of acoustic communication in molluscs is considered. The production of sound as a warning to predators or as a means to attract mates is widespread among arthropods and vertebrates, both on land and in water, but is unknown among molluscs, even though many derived clades of gastropods and cephalopods are characterized by internal fertilization and by the evolution of long-distance visual and chemical signalling. Many molluscs possess suitable hard parts – shell, operculum and jaws – for producing sound, but most shell-bearing molluscs lack the agility or aggression necessary to cope with high-activity enemies attracted to an acoustic beacon. Their evolutionary background, arising from the generally passive adaptations of molluscs and other animals with low metabolic rates, prevents selection favouring communication by sound, and indeed favours silence. Several clades of shell-bearing gastropods and cephalopods were identified in which sound production has the greatest potential to arise or to be discovered. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 100, 485–493.