It has long been acknowledged that there are powerful connections among sound, music, emotion, and memory, and that our personal experiences and tendencies determine the type and intensity of emotional reaction we have to different 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 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 identified as annoying
Other sounds have a more universal character. UCLA researchers have found that the sound of laughter is universally identified 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 specific emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the response tend to differ between individuals?
Although the answer is still principally a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University yields some interesting insights into how sound and sound environments can affect humans on personal, emotional, and psychological levels.
Here are six psychological mechanisms through which sound may evoke emotions:
1. Brain-Stem Reflex
You’re sitting quietly in your office when all of a sudden you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most people, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This kind of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to potentially vital or dangerous sounds.
2. Evaluative Conditioning
People commonly associate sounds with selected emotions depending on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For example, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may give you feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may yield the opposite feelings of sadness.
3. Emotional Contagion
When someone smiles or laughs, it’s hard to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s found 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 watching someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for instance, it can be difficult to not also experience the associated feelings of sadness.
4. Visual Imagery
Let’s say you like listening to CDs containing only the sounds of nature. Why do you like it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that even 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 relaxing at the beach.
5. Episodic Memory
Sounds can elicit emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can provoke memories of a peaceful day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may result in memories associated with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.
6. Music Expectancy
Music has been described as the universal language, which seems logical the more you consider it. Music is, after all, simply a random grouping of sounds, and is pleasurable 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 stimulate an emotional response.
Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss
Regardless 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 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 instance, nature walks become less rewarding when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t distinguish 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 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 provoke?
Are there any particular sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.