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 response 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 person
  • Wind chimes commonly provoke 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 identity. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is globally recognized as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are globally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we predisposed to specific emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the reaction tend to vary between individuals?

Although the answer is still effectively a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University offers some exciting 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 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, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This type of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to possibly vital or dangerous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people commonly associate sounds with selected emotions based on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may create 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 laughs, it’s tough to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s revealed that the brain may contain what are labeled as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are watching someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone speaking 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 that contain exclusively 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 robust visual images of the natural environment in which the sounds are heard. For example, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself lounging at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can stimulate emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can evoke memories of a relaxing 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 labeled as the universal language, which makes sense the more you think about it. Music is, after all, simply a random array 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 produce an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective 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 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 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 evoke?

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