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 response we have to various sounds.
For example, research has uncovered these widespread associations between certain 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 identified as irritating
Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is universally recognized as a positive sound signifying enjoyment, while other sounds are universally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.
So why are we susceptible to particular emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the response tend to vary between people?
Although the answer is still principally a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University delivers some interesting 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 arouse emotions:
1. Brain-Stem Reflex
You’re seated quietly in your office when suddenly you hear a loud, abrupt crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This kind of response is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to possibly important or dangerous sounds.
2. Evaluative Conditioning
Many people commonly associate sounds with specific emotions dependant 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 generate the opposite feelings of sadness.
3. Emotional Contagion
When someone smiles or laughs, it’s difficult to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s discovered that the brain may contain what are known as “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 talking while crying, for example, it can be difficult to not also experience the accompanying feelings of sadness.
4. Visual Imagery
Let’s say you love 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 even further, it most likely evokes some powerful 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 relaxing at the beach.
5. Episodic Memory
Sounds can spark emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can stir up memories of a relaxing day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may induce memories affiliated with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.
6. Music Expectancy
Music has been depicted as the universal language, which makes sense the more you consider it. Music is, after all, simply a random grouping 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 produce an emotional response.
Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss
Irrespective of your particular 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 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 enjoyable 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 truth is that hearing is more vital to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we probably realize. It also means 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 specific sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.