6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

It has long been understood 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 response we have to various sounds.

For example, research has revealed these widespread associations between particular 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 perceived as irritating

Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have found that the sound of laughter is universally recognized as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are universally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

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

While the answer is still essentially a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University yields some fascinating 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 provoke emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re seated quietly in your office when suddenly you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your reaction? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This kind of impulse is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially critical or hazardous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People frequently associate sounds with particular emotions dependant on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may provoke feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may produce the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s hard to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s found that the brain may contain what are labeled as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are observing someone else perform the task. When we hear someone speaking while crying, for instance, it can be challenging to not also experience the corresponding feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you like 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 most likely evokes some robust visual images of the natural environment 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 evoke memories of a relaxing day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may activate 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, just a random array of sounds, and is pleasant 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 generate 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 particular sounds, you also lose the emotional impact associated with the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear comfortably.

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less engaging when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t differentiate specific 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 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 provoke?

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

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