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6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

It has long been acknowledged 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 common 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 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 annoying

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 linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we susceptible to particular emotional responses in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the response tend to differ between individuals?

Although 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 influence 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, abrupt crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This type of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially critical or dangerous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People often associate sounds with particular emotions depending on the context in which the sound was heard. For instance, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may induce feelings of joy, while the same song first heard 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 found that the brain may contain what are called “mirror neurons” that are active both when you are performing 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 similar feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy 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 further, it most likely evokes some robust 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 induce emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can bring to mind memories of a peaceful day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may trigger 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 give it some thought. Music is, after all, only a random array of sounds, and is satisfying 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 various sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the capability 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 well.

With hearing loss, for example, 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 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 probably 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 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.

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