The psy­chol­ogy of sound

What you hear can trig­ger a host of dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions

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Sounds are able to cre­ate pow­er­ful re­ac­tions on deep, in­stinc­tive lev­els. A baby’s cry can set a new par­ent into ac­tion with­out con­scious thought, a sharp warn­ing hiss of a snake can trig­ger adren­a­line, and hear­ing that favourite song on the ra­dio might bring a smile be­fore you re­alise it. Sci­en­tists and thinkers have been pon­der­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween sound and emo­tion for thou­sands of years. Mod­ern day neu­ro­science has un­cov­ered amaz­ing in­sights into the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our ears, minds and emo­tions. Deep within the brain, in the Amyg­dala, we pro­cesses me­mories and emo­tional re­ac­tion, while the Hip­pocam­pus con­trols be­hav­iour and helps form me­mories. Within these most pri­mal sec­tors of the mind, re­sponses are trig­gered when we hear sound. Breath­ing, heart rate, brain­waves and hor­mone se­cre­tions are con­tin­u­ously af­fected by in­com­ing au­dio. Sounds are as­so­ci­ated with ex­pe­ri­ences and the feel­ings con­nected to them, both good and bad. How some­one feels at any given moment, is very of­ten af­fected di­rectly by what they hear. Peo­ple have the abil­ity to re­mem­ber hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of songs and voices. Sounds are re­mem­bered more eas­ily be­cause of the im­pres­sion they make on your mind, and they also are much harder to ig­nore. Hear­ing some­one say your name across a crowded room, but seem­ing to ig­nore ev­ery­thing else, is just one ex­am­ple.

Film and game-mak­ers have cap­i­talised on the psy­cho­log­i­cal power of sound for years. They know how sound can evoke emo­tions. The right mu­sic or am­bi­ent sounds can in­stantly con­nect an au­di­ence to a flood of as­so­ci­ated feel­ings. Ev­ery­one has that favourite game theme song or movie score. As soon as they hear it, they re­call how they ‘felt’ when they played it or saw it the first time. Per­haps it’s the iconic Su­per Mario Bros theme or the sound­track from Aze­roth in World of War­craft. The right sound de­sign, the right mu­sic, can not only set the mood, but emo­tion­ally con­nect to peo­ple in a way vi­su­als alone sim­ply can­not.

Sound And emo­tions brain stem re­flex

When loud or dis­so­nant sounds are heard, they sig­nal a po­ten­tially im­por­tant and ur­gent event, caus­ing us to re­act on an in­stinc­tive level. No­ti­fi­ca­tions, beeps and sirens are ex­am­ples.

Learned re­sponse or con­di­tion­ing

When we have heard a sound re­peat­edly in a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion, it can of­ten lead to an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween that sound and sit­u­a­tion. Hear­ing it again, can in­stantly elicit emo­tions or feel­ings.

emo­tional con­ta­gion

Per­ceiv­ing emo­tions ex­pressed by a piece of mu­sic. It doesn’t have to sound sad. In­stead we recog­nise it as con­vey­ing ‘sad­ness’. Sound is so fun­da­men­tal, that it of­ten tran­scends lan­guages. Peo­ple from di­verse cultural back­grounds of­ten agree on whether a piece of mu­sic sounds happy or sad. This has led some to term mu­sic the ‘lan­guage of emo­tions’.

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