Reader Christah wrote to ask, “Why do our voices sound different to us than they do to other people/on recordings?” And Jenny asked on Facebook, "Why do we hate the sound of our own voice?"
For many of us, there are few things more painful than hearing a recording of our own voices. They don’t sound like we think they should. They’re tinnier, higher and just not right. The tape (or mp3) doesn’t lie, though, and the way we think we sound isn’t how we really sound to everyone else. This is a cruel trick that happens because of the ways that sounds can travel to our inner ear.
Every sound we hear—birds chirping, bees buzzing, people talking, and recordings—is a wave of pressure moving through the air. Our outer ears “catch” these waves and funnel them into our head through the ear canal. They strike the ear drum, which starts vibrating, and those vibrations travel to the inner ear, where they’re translated into signals that can be sent via the auditory nerve to the brain for interpretation.
The inner ear doesn’t get stimulated only by external sound waves coming down the ear canal, though. It also picks up on vibrations happening inside the body, and it's a combination of these two things that makes up the sound you hear when you talk.
When you speak, vibrations from your vocal cords resonate in your throat and mouth, and some get transmitted and conducted by the bones in your neck and head. The inner ear responds to these just like any other vibrations, turning them into electrical signals and sending them to the brain. Whenever you speak, your inner ear is stimulated both by internal vibrations in your bones and by the sound coming out of your mouth and traveling through the air and into the ears.
This combination of vibrations coming to the inner ear by two different paths gives your voice (as you normally hear it) a unique character that other, “air only” sounds don’t have. In particular, your bones enhance deeper, lower-frequency vibrations and give your voice a fuller, bassier quality that’s lacking when you hear it on a recording.
This story originally appeared in 2012.