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 response we have to specific sounds.

As an example, research has revealed these prevalent 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 evoke 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 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 associated with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we susceptible to particular emotional reactions in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the reaction tend to differ between people?

While the answer is still in essence a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University provides some exciting 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 stir up 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 reaction? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This kind of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially important or hazardous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People frequently associate sounds with certain emotions depending on the context in which the sound was heard. For example, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may generate feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may produce 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 revealed that the brain may contain what are known as “mirror neurons” that are activated 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 instance, it can be challenging to not also experience the associated feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy listening to CDs containing only the sounds of nature. Why do you enjoy it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that even further, it probably evokes some robust visual images of the natural surroundings in which the sounds are heard. For example, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself relaxing at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can trigger emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can bring to mind memories of a relaxing day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may elicit memories connected with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been depicted as the universal language, which seems logical the more you consider it. Music is, after all, simply a random assortment 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 responses to different sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the ability 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 properly.

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less engaging when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional impact when you can’t distinguish certain instruments; and you place yourself at greater 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 probably 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 evoke?

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