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It has long been accepted that there are strong connections among sound, music, emotion, and memory, and that our personal experiences and tendencies determine the type and intensity of emotional reaction we have to distinct sounds.

As an example, research has uncovered these prevalent associations between specific sounds and emotions:

  • The sound of a thunderstorm evokes a feeling of either relaxation or anxiety, depending on the individual
  • Wind chimes commonly evoke a restless feeling
  • Rain evokes a feeling of relaxation
  • Fireworks evoke a feeling of nostalgia and pleasant memories
  • The vibrations of a cell phone are often identified as irritating

Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is globally recognized as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are universally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we predisposed to certain emotional reactions in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the response tend to vary between individuals?

Although the answer is still effectively a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University provides some interesting insights into how sound and sound environments can have an impact on humans on personal, emotional, and psychological levels.

Here are six psychological mechanisms through which sound may provoke emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re sitting quietly in your office when suddenly you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most people, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This kind of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to potentially significant or detrimental sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People frequently associate sounds with certain emotions based on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may give you feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may create the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s tough to not smile and laugh yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s revealed that the brain may contain what are known as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are observing someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for example, it can be difficult to not also experience the accompanying feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you like listening to CDs containing exclusively the sounds of nature. Why do you enjoy it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that even further, it most likely evokes some strong visual images of the natural environment in which the sounds are heard. Case in point, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself lounging at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can spark emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can stir up memories of a pleasurable day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may result in memories affiliated with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been identified as the universal language, which makes sense the more you give it some thought. Music is, after all, simply a random collection of sounds, and is pleasurable only because the brain imposes order to the sounds and interprets the order in a certain way. It is, in fact, your expectations about the rhythm and melody of the music that trigger an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective of your particular responses to different sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the capability to hear certain sounds, you also lose the emotional impact tied to the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear comfortably.

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less pleasurable when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional impact when you can’t differentiate specific instruments; and you place yourself at increased risk when you can’t hear fire alarms or other alerts to danger.

The bottom line is that hearing is more important to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we probably realize. It also indicates that treating your hearing loss will most likely have a greater impact than you realize, too.


What are some of your favorite sounds? What emotions do they stir up?

Are there any specific sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.

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