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How Sound Triggers Human Emotion

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The Science of Sound

By Dr. Sol Marghzar AuD, CCCA, Director of Audiology, Stephen Arnold Music

If you’re of a certain age and hear the opening chords to Lalo Shifren’s theme from Mission: Impossible, you probably recognize it immediately. You may even remember your favorite members of the cast. But something else is also happening, because hormones are being secreted in your body—triggering a sense of danger.

Our ears direct sound from the outside world to the hearing nerve. When sound passes through the inner ear, it contains only two types of information, pitch and loudness. However, by the time that sound reaches the brain, everything about it has been categorized so that it takes on meaning. The work of attaching meaning to sound happens in neural formations within the brain called the subcortical pathway or subcortical filter.

The filtering of sound to produce meaning happens reflexively. A mother can sleep through a thunderstorm, which may reach 70 or 80 decibels, but she wakes at once to the sound of her baby smacking her lips, which is 10,000 times softer. Both sounds enter the ear the same way, but the brain analyzes them differently. One is safe to ignore, the other requires immediate action.

Limbic System Chart

Human behavior and emotional response are controlled by the limbic system. This structural part of our brain has two main components: the hippocampus, the center of memory and learning, and the amygdala, the seat of emotion. Love, hate, fear, enjoyment, rage and other intense feelings are mediated by amygdala.

The amygdala is extremely sensitive to sound. That is why human beings have such a strong emotional response to the things we hear. Emotions become attached to sound through experience, and emotions triggered by experience provoke certain thoughts and behaviors. We are constantly interpreting sound based on our past experiences and determining how to respond. Familiar sounds provoke predictable emotional responses, but sometimes a sound is so compelling that our response is no longer simply emotional, it becomes a belief. Our beliefs are very powerful, and they are very difficult to change.

Understanding how the brain processes sound is essential to sonic branding. Good sonic branding stimulates an emotional response, but great sonic branding does more–it becomes rooted in the belief system. It’s what makes the best sonic brands so deeply resonant and meaningful why, when we hear the Mission: Impossible theme, we feel danger in the air. Sonic brands, as they tap into our emotions and gradually and consistently become beliefs, are irresistible. For brands, they are a gold mine.

Dr. Sol Marghzar

Sol Marghzar is a doctor of audiology certified by the American Board of Audiology. He heads a clinic in Southern California specializing is helping people suffering from tinnitus and other hearing problems. He serves as Director of Audiology at Stephen Arnold Music.

Leave a comment:


    E Doyle McCarthy
    I’m writing a book about our emotional lives today.
    I’m impressed by these arguments about loud sounds and emotions
    I am putting them together with an article documenting the increase in sound and noise in our lives today.
    thanks, Doyle on 9/19/2023

    E. Doyle McCarthy, Professor Emerita of Sociology & American Studies, Fordham University, New York.