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 reaction we have to specific sounds.

For example, research has revealed these common 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 perceived as annoying

Other sounds have a more universal character. UCLA researchers have found 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 predisposed to certain emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the reaction tend to differ between individuals?

Although the answer is still essentially a mystery, current 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 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 response? If you’re like most people, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This kind of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to possibly significant or harmful sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people commonly associate sounds with particular emotions depending 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 listened to by someone during a bad breakup may create the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s tough 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 active both when you are performing a task AND when you are watching someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for instance, it can be hard to not also experience the accompanying feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy 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 setting 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 stimulate emotionally potent 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 induce 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 think about it. Music is, after all, merely a random grouping of sounds, and is pleasant 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 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 particular sounds, you also lose the emotional impact 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 running water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t differentiate certain 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 probably 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 evoke?

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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