It has long been understood that there are powerful connections between sound, music, emotion, and memory, and that our personal experiences and tendencies determine the type and intensity of emotional reaction we have to specific 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 perceived as irritating

Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have discovered that the sound of laughter is universally identified as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are universally 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 differ between people?

Although the answer is still in essence a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University offers some fascinating 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 evoke emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re sitting quietly in your office when suddenly you hear a loud, abrupt crash. What’s your reaction? If you’re like most people, 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 significant or detrimental sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people often associate sounds with particular emotions based on the context in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may bring about 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 hard to not smile and laugh 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 carrying out 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 difficult to not also experience the accompanying feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you like listening to CDs that contain only the sounds of nature. Why do you like it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that even further, it most likely 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 relaxing day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may induce memories connected with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been defined as the universal language, which makes sense the more you give it some thought. Music is, after all, only a random arrangement of sounds, and is satisfying 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 particular responses 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 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 pleasant when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t distinguish specific 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 vital 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 provoke?

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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