The pelagic life history phase of reef fishes and decapod crustaceans is complex, and the evolutionary drivers and ecological consequences of this life history strategy remain largely speculative. There is no doubt, however, that this life history phase is very significant in the demographics of reef populations. Here, we initially discuss the ecology and evolution of the pelagic life histories as a context to our review of the role of acoustics in the latter part of the pelagic phase as the larvae transit back onto a reef. Evidence is reviewed showing that larvae are actively involved in this transition. They are capable swimmers and can locate reefs from hundreds of metres if not kilometres away. Evidence also shows that sound is available as an orientation cue, and that fishes and crustaceans hear sound and orient to sound in a manner that is consistent with their use of sound to guide settlement onto reefs. Comparing particle motion sound strengths in the field (8 x 10(-11) m at 5 km from a reef) with the measured behavioural and electrophysiological threshold of fishes of (3 x 10(-11) m and 10 x 10(-11), respectively) provides evidence that sound may be a useful orientation cue at a range of kilometres rather than hundreds of metres. These threshold levels are for adult fishes and we conclude that better data are needed for larval fishes and crustaceans at the time of settlement. Measurements of field strengths in the region of reefs and threshold levels are suitable for showing that sound could be used; however, field experiments are the only effective tool to demonstrate the actual use of underwater sound for orientation purposes. A diverse series of field experiments including light-trap catches enhanced by replayed reef sound, in situ observations of behaviour and sound-enhanced settlement rate on patch reefs collectively provide a compelling case that sound is used as an orientation and settlement cue for these late larval stages.