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

For example, research has uncovered 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 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 annoying

Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have discovered that the sound of laughter is globally identified as a positive sound signifying amusement, 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?

Although the answer is still in essence a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University yields some interesting 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 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 kind of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to potentially important or hazardous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

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

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s tough to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s revealed that the brain may contain what are referred to as “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 communicating while crying, for example, it can be challenging to not also experience the corresponding feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you like listening to CDs containing exclusively the sounds of nature. Why do you like it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that even further, it probably evokes some potent 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 lounging at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can trigger emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can provoke memories of a tranquil day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may trigger 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 think about it. Music is, after all, merely a random array 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 stimulate an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Regardless of your specific reactions to various sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the capacity to hear certain 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 pleasant when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional impact when you can’t differentiate certain instruments; and you place yourself at greater 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 probably 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.