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

For example, research has uncovered these common 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 perceived as annoying

Other sounds have a more universal character. UCLA researchers have discovered that the sound of laughter is globally identified as a positive sound signifying enjoyment, while other sounds are globally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

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

Although the answer is still principally a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University offers some interesting insights into how sound and sound environments can impact 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 all of a sudden you hear a loud, abrupt crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This type of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially critical or life-threatening sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People commonly 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 induce feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may bring on the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s tough to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s found that the brain may contain what are described as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are viewing someone else perform the task. When we hear someone talking while crying, for instance, it can be challenging to not also experience the associated feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy listening to CDs that contain 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 potent 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 relaxing at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can induce emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can arouse memories of a relaxing day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may lead to memories affiliated with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been identified as the universal language, which seems logical the more you consider it. Music is, after all, only a random grouping 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 ability to hear particular sounds, you also lose the emotional force associated with the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear properly.

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

The truth is that hearing is more important to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we most likely 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 evoke?

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

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