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Sound as an Emotional Driver

Seth Horowitz, auditory neuroscientist at Brown University, said in an interview with National Public Radio, “Sound and the mind are very, very intricately linked, and yet we almost never pay attention to sound. Sound is always there. It’s our early warning system. It’s also our emotional driver. It’s our attentional driver.

Everything you hear has some kind of an impact on you and changes how you respond to the rest of the world. So since sound provides context, it’s operating in the back and is able to give us the basis for a lot of very, very complex cognitive responses. Emotion is one of the most complicated things that the brain has to carry out, and one of the most important drivers of emotion is sound. And the reason it’s so important is because it works underneath our cognitive radar.”The fact that sound is an emotional driver gives it the ability to communicate in complex ways.

We classify music in terms of how it affects us emotionally. As researchers Judy Alpert and Mark Alpert concluded, the elements of music, including tempo and rhythm, can influence moods. Up-tempo, more lively music registers as happy while slower, less varied rhythms reflect as sad or sentimental.

Whether we realize it or not, our sound perception is always “on.” The act of hearing is considered a passive activity. Sound envelops our world, yet we are able to mentally ignore some sounds and focus our hearing on sounds of our choosing.

At work, we manage to tune out the whirl of the climate control system or the hum of a computer hard drive. While walking, we ignore the noise of traffic, passersby outside, or birds in the air. It isn’t until we decide to focus on these sounds do we begin to not just “hear” but begin to “listen.”

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