Motivated by recent studies that have revealed the existence of trapped acoustic waves in subsonic jets (Towne et al., J. Fluid Mech., vol. 825, 2017, pp. 1113–1152), we undertake a more general exploration of the physics associated with acoustic modes in jets and wakes, using a double vortex-sheet model. These acoustic modes are associated with eigenvalues of the vortex-sheet dispersion relation; they are discrete modes, guided by the vortex sheet; they may be either propagative or evanescent; and under certain conditions they behave in the manner of acoustic-duct modes. By analysing these modes we show how jets and wakes may both behave as waveguides under certain conditions, emulating ducts with soft or hard walls, with the vortex-sheet impedance providing effective ‘wall’ conditions. We consider, in particular, the role that upstream-travelling acoustic modes play in the dispersion-relation saddle points that underpin the onset of absolute instability. The analysis illustrates how departure from duct-like behaviour is a necessary condition for absolute instability, and this provides a new perspective on the stabilising and destabilising effects of reverse flow, temperature ratio and compressibility; it also clarifies the differing symmetries of jet (symmetric) and wake (antisymmetric) instabilities. An energy balance, based on the vortex-sheet impedance, is used to determine stability conditions for the acoustic modes: these may become unstable in supersonic flow due to an energy influx through the shear layers. Finally, we construct the impulse response of flows with zero and finite shear-layer thickness. This allows us to show how the long-time wavepacket behaviour is indeed determined by interaction between Kelvin–Helmholtz and acoustic modes.