It has long been acknowledged that there are powerful 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 revealed these prevalent associations between certain sounds and emotions:

  • The sound of a thunderstorm evokes a feeling of either relaxation or anxiety, depending on the individual
  • 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 identified as annoying

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

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

While the answer is still essentially a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University yields some fascinating insights into how sound and sound environments can influence humans on personal, emotional, and psychological levels.

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

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re sitting quietly in your office when suddenly you hear a loud, abrupt crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This kind of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially vital or hazardous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People frequently associate sounds with certain emotions dependent on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may trigger feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may generate the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s difficult to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s found that the brain may contain what are called “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 communicating while crying, for instance, it can be difficult to not also experience the associated feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you love 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 probably evokes some powerful visual images of the natural surroundings 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 activate emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can evoke 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 described as the universal language, which makes sense the more you think about it. Music is, after all, simply a random array 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 activate an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Regardless of your specific 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 certain sounds, you also lose the emotional force associated with the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear comfortably.

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less satisfying when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t differentiate specific instruments; and you place yourself at greater 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 most likely realize. It also indicates that treating your hearing loss will probably 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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