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

For example, research has revealed 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 annoying

Other sounds have a more universal character. UCLA researchers have observed 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 susceptible to specific emotional reactions in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the response tend to vary between people?

While the answer is still effectively a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University yields some fascinating insights into how sound and sound environments can have an impact on humans on personal, emotional, and psychological levels.

Here are six psychological mechanisms through which sound may arouse emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re sitting quietly in your office when suddenly you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This kind of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially important or dangerous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People commonly associate sounds with selected emotions depending on the context in which the sound was heard. For example, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may induce feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may result in 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 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 viewing someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for instance, it can be difficult to not also experience the similar feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you like listening to CDs containing only 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 strong visual images of the natural environment 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 elicit emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can evoke memories of a peaceful day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may induce memories associated 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 give it some thought. Music is, after all, simply a random collection 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 activate an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective of your specific reactions to different sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the capability 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 properly.

With hearing loss, for example, 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 specific 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 most likely 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 particular sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.