6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

It has long been accepted that there are strong connections among sound, music, emotion, and memory, and that our personal experiences and preferences determine the type and intensity of emotional response we have to various sounds.

For example, research has uncovered 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 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 globally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

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

Although the answer is still in essence a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University yields 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 stir up 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 response is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to possibly vital or life-threatening sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

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

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s hard to not smile and laugh yourself. Research carried out in the 1990s found that the brain may contain what are referred to as “mirror neurons” that are active both when you are performing a task AND when you are watching someone else carry out 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 like 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 further, it probably evokes some strong visual images of the natural surroundings in which the sounds are heard. Case in point, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself lounging at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can activate emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can stir up memories of a relaxing day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may induce memories affiliated 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 give it some thought. Music is, after all, merely a random grouping of sounds, and is pleasurable 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 responses to various 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 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 rewarding 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 vital 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 evoke?

Are there any particular sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited?

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.