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It has long been accepted that there are powerful connections between 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 widespread associations between particular 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 universally recognized as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are globally associated with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we predisposed to certain emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the reaction tend to vary between people?

Although the answer is still effectively a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University yields some exciting 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 seated quietly in your office when all of a sudden you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your reaction? If you’re like most people, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This type of response is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially critical or dangerous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People commonly associate sounds with selected emotions depending on the context in which the sound was heard. For instance, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may create feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may result in the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s difficult to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s discovered that the brain may contain what are called “mirror neurons” that are active both when you are performing a task AND when you are watching someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone talking while crying, for example, it can be challenging to not also experience the similar feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

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

5. Episodic Memory

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

6. Music Expectancy

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

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective of your specific reactions to various sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the ability to hear certain sounds, you also lose the emotional force associated with the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear well.

With hearing loss, for instance, nature walks become less enjoyable when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional impact when you can’t distinguish certain instruments; and you place yourself at increased 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 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 provoke?

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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