Week 6 — Psychology of Sound

During this week’s class, we talked about sound and the psychological effect it has on us. Though we don’t always fully realize it when we’re listening, sound has a profound affect on us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively, and behaviourally. Just as the feeling of touch is tied to a number of components in our bodies, which send signals up to the brain, these four ways are interconnected.


Certain sounds we hear can affect our bodies and trigger certain feelings. In a Ted Talk video we watched in class, an (obvious) example given of this was the calming affect that the sound of the ocean had on listeners, which often evokes a sense of tranquility and well-being. This isn’t without reason, as the sounds of the ocean generally operate at 12 cycles per minute, which is on the slower end of the spectrum. Other sounds in this cycle range include the sound of deep breathing and _. On the other end of the spectrum, sounds with greater cycles per minute range (ie. police sirens, alarms) can invoke feelings of unease, and even increased heart rate (Treasure).

In a study conducted by _ on the physiological components of sound, researchers were able to conclude that chronic noise exposure “may give rise to physiological effects in terms of raised blood pressure”. Furthermore, they discovered that “chronic exposure to aircraft noise was found to be associated with raised systolic and diastolic blood pressure” (Stansfeld). Even from my limited exposure to planes, I could validate this claim even without the research being done! The noises that planes create are simply dreadful.


Even more prevalent than how sound affects our physical state is how it affects mental state. The most obvious example of this is in music and how it makes us feel. An upbeat, pop record has the power to make listeners feel good about themselves, putting them in a great mood. That very song could be succeeded with a Sam Smith-style piano ballad record, and one’s mood can flip instantly to a more somber feeling. Lastly, the video mentioned birdsong, a more evolutionary example of sounds affecting us psychologically. Hearing birds tends to put one in a relaxed, blissful mood. This could be due to the fact that our ancestors would be at ease when hearing birds as an absence of them signalled imminent danger (Beckstead).

It goes without saying that music has a tremendous affect a listener’s mood, and is directly tied to why music is so powerful. As suggested in the November 2015 issue of Psychology of Music, one’s mood can be regulated or enhanced through several music-listening techniques. Listeners can focus on their negative feelings by discharging them through music, or “eliminat[ing] them by intensifying emotional and physical sensations through music, and by mentally observing negative feelings while listening to music” (Schifriss 795). Sometimes when we’re feeling down, we feed into this feeling by listening to songs that continuously evoke this feeling from us. Another example of this could be when you’re getting ready to go out with friends and you’ve got your favourite tunes playing, then an Adele track comes on and you scramble quickly to change the song cause you’re trying to keep the energy high. Another strategy proposed in the article was to distract one’s bad mood through the use of a joyful song, “diverting one’s attention to happy music, and thereby forgetting unwanted thoughts” (Schifriss 795). Therefore, sounds can affect our psychological state by ‘hijacking’ our emotions.


The cognitive perception of sound deals with our ability to be attentive and understanding to what we are hearing. If 2 or more people talking to you at once — it becomes difficult to process what is being said, and we must actively decide which party to listen to. It’s why libraries and lecture halls demand silence, so we can focus our attention to either hearing ourselves and/or the professor giving their lecture. A study on sound and office productivity found a direct correlation between the two, discovering that sound, along with temperature, was one of the principal factors affecting productivity in workplace settings. The sources listed as most likely to affect their productivity were conversation, ringing phones and machines (Mak 343–344). I recall working as an audio technician last year and having tremendous difficulty dealing with the open work space because the chatter and office noises (keyboard smacking, printing) were counterintuitive to my productivity. Despite having headphones, it became difficult to process all the sounds that were entering my sonic radius, becoming very distracting (Treasure).

It’s the reason why many people don’t like to play music while they work. Though this is my preferred way of working as well, from time to time I will listen to classical music while studying. Music with a vocalist can become too distracting for me and I try to avoid it all together, because it begins to sound like they are talking to me while I’m trying to work. To an extent, quantized music can be annoying to work to aswell because I can anticipate the next beat in the song and I begin to bob like a metronome to the song, which is counterintuitive to studying. My brother is the complete opposite; cranking rock music at his speakers highest setting as he conducts his business. This just goes to demonstrate the subjectivity of sounds and their affects on productivity.


Sounds can also alter our behavioural patterns, influencing how we conduct ourselves and the decisions we make. In his Ted Talk, Julian Treasure discusses the effect of sounds we generally deem “unpleasant” (ie. construction work, sirens, excessive chatter) and their impact on customer behaviour in retail. He noted that retailers generally lose as much as 30% of their sales due to unpleasant sounds turning away business (Treasure). In 2006, a study was conducted by _ in the wine section of a store, where similarly flavored and priced bottles of French and German wine were being displayed for the sake of the experiment. Over the span of 4 months — on days of the week when French accordion music was played, 77% of the wine sold was French, while on German brass band days, 73% of the wine sold was German. Following the study being conducted, only one customer cited the music as influencing their decision, though it likely influenced the majority of others subconsciously.

Behavioural effects of noise exposure on us often tend to be subtle, taking shape in the form of simple habits such as lowering the radio down when trying to find parking spot in a congested lot, closing windows to suppress the sound of those no-good kids playing tag outside, or even raising the volume of radios and televisions in order to minimize exposure to outside noise. Though this surely was not the first research done into the matter, a study conducted by the Oxford Journals’ British Medical Bulletin in 2012 found that people who live in noisy neighborhoods (near freeways, traffic congestion) are more prone to “making mistakes when completing simple tasks”, “forgetting” things, and “dropping” things more often. They also grow to become more agitated by smaller sounds frequently; which I must say comes as a surprise because I would think that they would almost become less able to even hear miniscule noises!

Noise can also affect social behaviour and can result in unfriendliness, non-participation and disengagement. The article then goes on to discuss the fact that noise is not the only requirement for creating aggression, however is often coupled with provocation, alcohol and preexisting hostility in order to produce an aggressive response from an individual (Goines). Therefore, sounds can affect our behavioural states in addition to our physiological, psychological and cognitive states.


Beckstead, Lori. “RTA 907 — Psychology of Sound.” Ryerson University. Kerr Hall East, Toronto, ON. 20 Oct 2016. Lecture.

Goines, Lisa and Louis Hagler. “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague.” Southern Medical Journal 100.3 (2007): 287–294. Web. 22 Oct 2016.

Mak, CM, and YP Lui. “The Effect of Sound on Office Productivity.” Building Services Engineering Research & Technology 33.3 (2012): 339–45. Web. 22 Oct 2016

Shifriss, Roni, Ehud Bodner, and Yuval Palgi. “When you’re Down and Troubled: Views on the Regulatory Power of Music.” Psychology of Music 43.6 (2015): 793–807. Web. 22 Oct 2016.

Stansfeld, Stephen A. and Mark P. Matheson. “Noise pollution: non-auditory affects on health.” British Medical Bulletin. Oxford University Press, 2003. Web. 22 Oct 2016.

Treasure, Julian. “The 4 ways sound affects us.” Online video clip. Ted. Ted Conferences, Jul 2009. Web. 22 Oct 2016.

Areni, Charles. David, Kim. “The Influence of Background Music on Shopping Behavior.” Association For Human Research. 2006. 336–340.

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