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It has long been recognized 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 reaction we have to different sounds.

For example, research has revealed these common associations between particular 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 pleasant memories
  • The vibrations of a cell phone are often perceived as irritating

Other sounds have a more universal character. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is globally recognized as a positive sound signifying enjoyment, while other sounds are globally associated with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we susceptible to particular emotional reactions in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the reaction tend to vary between individuals?

While the answer is still in essence a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University offers some fascinating insights into how sound and sound environments can influence 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 impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to possibly significant or detrimental sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People commonly associate sounds with specific emotions depending on the circumstance 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 yield the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s hard to not smile and laugh yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s revealed 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 speaking while crying, for example, it can be challenging to not also experience the similar 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 further, it probably evokes some potent 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 lounging at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can stimulate emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can bring to mind memories of a peaceful day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may elicit memories associated with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been identified as the universal language, which seems logical the more you give it some thought. Music is, after all, simply a random combination of sounds, and is satisfying 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 stimulate an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Regardless of your particular 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 certain 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 example, nature walks become less rewarding 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 bottom line is that hearing is more vital to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we probably realize. It also indicates 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 stir up?

Are there any particular sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.