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It has long been established 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 reaction we have to diverse 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 individual
  • 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 identified as irritating

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 universally associated 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 response tend to vary between people?

Although the answer is still ultimately a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University provides some fascinating 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 seated quietly in your office when all of a sudden you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your reaction? If you’re like most people, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This type of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to potentially vital or dangerous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People often associate sounds with specific emotions based on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may create feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may create the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s hard to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s revealed 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 viewing someone else perform the task. When we hear someone speaking while crying, for example, it can be hard to not also experience the corresponding feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy 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 further, it most likely evokes some robust visual images of the natural surroundings 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 activate emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can evoke memories of a tranquil day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may elicit memories linked 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, just a random arrangement of sounds, and is pleasing 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 stimulate an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective of your particular 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 well.

With hearing loss, for instance, nature walks become less rewarding when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing 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 vital to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we probably realize. It also indicates 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 provoke?

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