Sound conveying emotions: what about surprise?


Hello everyone!

On the context of an application I am working on for my Master's program on Sound Design, in which my role with a classmate was to compose / sound design small samples that convey emotions (such as fear, sadness, happiness, tenderness, ...) we started to question if through sound, UNRELATED to any context is it possible to convey surprise!

As a matter of comparison, if I present you to you all a very sad piece, in general we would all agree that the piece is sad, without needing to insert it in a context of any kind. Honestly I cannot think of the same happening with surprise. I think it's possible to be surprised if the sound is... well uncommon, surprising, after all. But is this the same as conveying emotion with melodies, timbres, etc.? Also, it might be surprising the first, maybe second time we hear it, but after it... well that's the thing with surprise, after all.

Maybe my line of thought is all wrong, but anyway, I am very curious to hear what this fantastic community has to say about it, and if you remember of any example.

Thank you!

Melissa Pons

Posted 2012-11-01T14:42:00.207

Reputation: 614

For me surprise in music is always connected with sudden dynamic event (like loud note) or rhythmic event (like note outside the beat). These two things combined should have surprising effect on me. – owl – 2015-06-11T10:53:31.747



I don't consider surprise a "steady-state" emotion like joy or sadness or fear. Surprise, while a legitimate emotion, seems like a reaction to a major change in state, context, other emotions, or expectations.

Sound and music are all about surprise, but it's usually momentary. In terms of film sound, surprise seems to be usually handled usually by atonality and dissonance, and that can be pretty fatiguing to listen to. It also tends to call attention to itself, which of course great sound isn't necessarily supposed to do. I'd think that listening to music that was surprising in a sustained, ongoing way would be a suspension-of-belief eject button for any viewer.

There's a fine line between being surprised and being annoyed. :-)


Posted 2012-11-01T14:42:00.207

Reputation: 11 088

@NoiseJockey Thank you for your answer. In fact, surprise isn't as steady as the other emotions I mentioned. The project in questioned doesn't relate to images, but actually more to words. We are following Ekman's theory on the universality of emotions, based on facial expressions. Funny as the same doesn't quite happen with sounds. – Melissa Pons – 2012-11-01T15:33:45.037


Hello Melissa,

I had a lot of similar discussions last year in one of my my Master's program classes. We would talk about the concept of synesthesia and how it differed from individual to individual, so it was very difficult to design for all listeners. I agree with @NoiseJockey that "surprise" without external context (in the sense of "startling") is a fairly immediate sensation rather than a lasting emotion. It might help to reword your definition — maybe "surprising" someone simply means defying their expectations:

  • a standard line of classical music with a cadence that never finishes
  • music with a meter that constantly shifts and never repeats
  • a build-up to a sneeze without a sneeze
  • A passage read by a single voice where a key word of each sentence is reversed

I do think context plays heavily into the idea of surprise — after all, you can't be surprised by something if you don't have an alternative expectation of it — but I also think it's very possible to create your own context within the world of your design.

Really interesting challenge. Gotta love grad school for those :).


Matt Glenn

Posted 2012-11-01T14:42:00.207

Reputation: 1 801

Hi, Matt! Indeed, it is very interesting and gets you thinking in bridges between other ways of expression. It's also subjective, the experience we are creating is subjective from start, but there are connection points, or rather, transversal points to a lot of people. Also a good training for sound designers and even musicians. Now, let's try to build a narrative upon randomly generated sounds. ;) Our work is based on words or groups of works within a context and generate sounds from it. We had to exclude surprise anyway, which is interesting to think about. – Melissa Pons – 2012-11-01T19:30:55.880