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

As an 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 individual
  • Wind chimes commonly provoke 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 perceived 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 globally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we predisposed to particular emotional reactions in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the reaction tend to vary between people?

Although the answer is still essentially a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University yields 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 provoke emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

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

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people frequently associate sounds with particular emotions based on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may generate feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may bring on the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

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

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy 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 further, it probably evokes some robust visual images of the natural surroundings in which the sounds are heard. For example, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself relaxing at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can activate emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can arouse memories of a tranquil day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may stimulate memories linked 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 think about it. Music is, after all, only a random assortment of sounds, and is satisfying 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 particular responses to different sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the ability to hear particular 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 running water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t distinguish certain 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 important 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 specific sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.

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