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

For example, research has revealed these prevalent associations between particular sounds and emotions:

  • The sound of a thunderstorm evokes a feeling of either relaxation or anxiety, depending on the person
  • Wind chimes commonly provoke a restless feeling
  • Rain evokes a feeling of relaxation
  • Fireworks evoke a feeling of nostalgia and pleasurable memories
  • The vibrations of a cell phone are often perceived as annoying

Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have found that the sound of laughter is universally identified 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 particular emotional reactions in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the response tend to vary between individuals?

While the answer is still in essence a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University offers 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 stir up 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 reaction? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This kind of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially important or hazardous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People commonly associate sounds with certain emotions dependant on the context in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may give rise to feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may produce the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s tough to not smile and laugh yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s found 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 viewing someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone speaking while crying, for example, it can be hard to not also experience the associated feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you like listening to CDs that contain only the sounds of nature. Why do you enjoy it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that further, it probably 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 relaxing at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

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

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been depicted as the universal language, which seems logical the more you give it some thought. Music is, after all, just a random assortment of sounds, and is pleasing 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

Regardless of your specific responses to various sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the capacity to hear particular sounds, you also lose the emotional impact tied to the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear well.

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less satisfying 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 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 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 particular sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.

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