6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

Atlanta Hearing Associates' Blog.

It has long been understood 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 different sounds.

As an example, research has uncovered these prevalent associations between particular sounds and emotions:

  • The sound of a thunderstorm evokes a feeling of either relaxation or anxiety, depending on the person
  • 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 perceived as irritating

Other sounds have a more universal character. UCLA researchers have discovered that the sound of laughter is globally identified as a positive sound signifying enjoyment, while other sounds are globally associated with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

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

While the answer is still essentially 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 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 reaction? If you’re like most people, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This kind of response is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to possibly important or harmful sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People commonly associate sounds with selected emotions depending on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may induce feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may result in the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or laughs, it’s tough to not smile and laugh 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 carry out 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 love 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 further, it probably evokes some robust 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 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 relaxing day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may induce 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 give it some thought. Music is, after all, simply a random array 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 induce an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Regardless of your specific responses to various 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 properly.

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less rewarding when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional impact when you can’t distinguish certain instruments; and you place yourself at increased risk when you can’t hear fire alarms or other alerts to danger.

The truth 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 evoke?

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

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.