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 response 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 person
  • 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 irritating

Other sounds have a more universal character. UCLA researchers have discovered that the sound of laughter is globally recognized 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 specific sounds? And why does the reaction tend to differ between people?

Although the answer is still principally a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University provides 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 seated 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 compelled to investigate. This kind of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to possibly critical or detrimental sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people often associate sounds with particular emotions dependant on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may provoke feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may create the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s tough to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s discovered that the brain may contain what are called “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are watching someone else perform the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for instance, it can be challenging to not also experience the accompanying feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy listening to CDs that contain exclusively the sounds of nature. Why do you like it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that further, it probably evokes some strong visual images of the natural environment 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 induce emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can evoke memories of a pleasurable day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may activate memories connected with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been labeled as the universal language, which seems logical the more you consider it. Music is, after all, only a random arrangement 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 generate an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective of your specific responses to various sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the capability to hear particular sounds, you also lose the emotional impact tied to the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear well.

With hearing loss, for instance, nature walks become less engaging when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t distinguish certain instruments; and you place yourself at increased 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 most likely 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.