It has long been established that there are powerful connections among sound, music, emotion, and memory, and that our personal experiences and preferences determine the type and intensity of emotional reaction we have to distinct sounds.

As an example, research has revealed these common associations between specific 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 character. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is universally recognized as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are globally associated with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

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

Although the answer is still principally a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University yields some fascinating 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 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 people, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This type of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to possibly critical or dangerous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people frequently associate sounds with selected emotions dependant on the context in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may generate feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may bring about the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s hard to not smile and laugh yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s found that the brain may contain what are described as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are viewing someone else perform the task. When we hear someone speaking while crying, for example, it can be difficult to not also experience the corresponding feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you love listening to CDs that contain 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 induce 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 lead to memories connected with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been described as the universal language, which makes sense the more you consider it. Music is, after all, simply a random combination of sounds, and is pleasurable only because the brain imposes order to the sounds and interprets the order in a specified way. It is, in fact, your expectations about the rhythm and melody of the music that induce 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 ability to hear particular sounds, you also lose the emotional force 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 rewarding when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional punch 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 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 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.

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