It has long been accepted 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 reaction we have to different sounds.
For example, research has revealed these common 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 pleasant memories
- The vibrations of a cell phone are often perceived as annoying
Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is globally identified as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are globally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.
So why are we susceptible to specific emotional responses in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the reaction tend to vary between people?
Although the answer is still ultimately a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University provides some fascinating insights into how sound and sound environments can have an impact on humans on personal, emotional, and psychological levels.
Here are six psychological mechanisms through which sound may provoke 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, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This type of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to potentially critical or dangerous sounds.
2. Evaluative Conditioning
Many people commonly associate sounds with selected emotions depending on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may produce feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may generate the opposing feelings of sadness.
3. Emotional Contagion
When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s difficult to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s found 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 talking while crying, for instance, it can be hard to not also experience the accompanying feelings of sadness.
4. Visual Imagery
Let’s say you enjoy 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 further, it probably evokes some powerful visual images of the natural setting 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 trigger emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can arouse memories of a pleasurable day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may result in memories linked 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, only a random combination 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 particular reactions 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 associated with the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear comfortably.
With hearing loss, for instance, nature walks become less engaging when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t differentiate certain instruments; and you place yourself at greater 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 probably 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.