It has long been acknowledged that there are strong 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.

As an example, research has revealed these widespread 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 evoke 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 discovered that the sound of laughter is globally identified as a positive sound signifying enjoyment, while other sounds are globally associated with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we predisposed to particular emotional responses in the presence of specific 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 affect 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 seated quietly in your office when suddenly you hear a loud, abrupt crash. What’s your response? 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 alert you to potentially important or detrimental sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people frequently associate sounds with selected emotions depending on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may trigger feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may yield the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s tough to not smile and laugh yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s discovered that the brain may contain what are labeled as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are observing someone else perform the task. When we hear someone talking while crying, for instance, it can be difficult to not also experience the corresponding feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy 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 even 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 stimulate emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can arouse memories of a pleasurable day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may induce memories associated with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been identified as the universal language, which makes sense the more you think about it. Music is, after all, only a random collection of sounds, and is pleasurable 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 produce 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 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 example, nature walks become less gratifying when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional impact 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 truth is that hearing is more vital to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we most likely realize. It also means 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 particular sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.

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