It has long been known that there are strong connections between sound, music, emotion, and memory, and that our personal experiences and preferences determine the type and intensity of emotional reaction we have to various sounds.

As an example, research has uncovered these prevalent 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 provoke 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 identity. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is universally identified as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are globally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we susceptible to specific emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the response tend to vary between people?

Although the answer is still effectively a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University provides some exciting 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 stir up emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re sitting quietly in your office when all of a sudden you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your response? 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 warn you to possibly significant or life-threatening sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People commonly associate sounds with selected emotions depending on the context in which the sound was heard. For instance, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may trigger feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may generate the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s difficult to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s revealed that the brain may contain what are called “mirror neurons” that are active both when you are performing a task AND when you are observing someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone speaking while crying, for example, it can be challenging to not also experience the accompanying feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you like listening to CDs containing 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 potent visual images of the natural setting 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 stimulate emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can bring to mind memories of a tranquil day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may activate memories associated with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been described as the universal language, which seems logical the more you give it some thought. Music is, after all, only a random combination of sounds, and is pleasant 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 induce an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Regardless 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 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 pleasant when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional impact when you can’t differentiate 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 important to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we most likely 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 evoke?

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