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6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

It has long been established that there are strong 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 specific sounds.

For example, research has uncovered these widespread associations between specific 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 pleasurable 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 universally recognized as a positive sound signifying enjoyment, while other sounds are universally associated with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

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

Although the answer is still in essence a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University offers some interesting 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, abrupt crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This type of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to possibly critical or harmful sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people commonly associate sounds with specific emotions based 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 listened to by someone during a bad breakup may create the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s difficult 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 carrying out a task AND when you are watching someone else perform the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for instance, 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 only 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 powerful visual images of the natural setting 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 trigger emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can stir up memories of a tranquil day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may stimulate memories associated with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been defined as the universal language, which makes sense the more you give it some thought. Music is, after all, only a random assortment of sounds, and is enjoyable 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 generate 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 capability to hear certain sounds, you also lose the emotional force 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 gratifying when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t differentiate specific 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 most likely realize. It also means 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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 13th, 2015 at 8:11 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.