HEARING TIPS

6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

It has long been established 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 reaction we have to specific sounds.

For example, research has revealed these prevalent associations between certain sounds and emotions:

  • The sound of a thunderstorm evokes a feeling of either relaxation or anxiety, depending on the individual
  • 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 identified as irritating

Other sounds have a more universal character. UCLA researchers have discovered 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 particular emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the reaction tend to vary between individuals?

While the answer is still principally a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University offers 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 stir up emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re seated quietly in your office when all of a sudden you hear a loud, abrupt crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most people, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This kind of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to potentially important or harmful sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People frequently associate sounds with certain emotions based on the context in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may give rise to feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may yield the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s difficult to not smile and laugh yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s revealed that the brain may contain what are known as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are carrying out a task AND when you are watching someone else perform the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for example, it can be challenging to not also experience the associated feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy listening to CDs that contain exclusively the sounds of nature. Why do you enjoy it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that even further, it probably evokes some potent 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 bring to mind memories of a tranquil 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 labeled as the universal language, which makes sense the more you think about it. Music is, after all, merely a random grouping of sounds, and is pleasing 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 produce an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective 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 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 properly.

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less engaging when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional impact 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 truth is that hearing is more important to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we most likely realize. It also indicates 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 evoke?

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

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