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It has long been understood that there are powerful 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 diverse sounds.

As an example, research has revealed these prevalent associations between specific 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 pleasant 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 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 reactions in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the reaction tend to differ between individuals?

While the answer is still in essence a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University delivers some interesting insights into how sound and sound environments can have an affect 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 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 people, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This type of response is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to potentially significant or life-threatening sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

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

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s difficult to not smile and laugh yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s discovered that the brain may contain what are labeled as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are carrying out a task AND when you are watching someone else perform the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for example, it can be hard to not also experience the corresponding feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you love 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. For example, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself relaxing at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can activate emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can provoke memories of a peaceful day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may result in 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 consider it. Music is, after all, simply a random assortment of sounds, and is enjoyable 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 trigger an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective of your particular reactions 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 comfortably.

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 impact 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 bottom line is that hearing is more important to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we probably 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.