Why Do Our Recorded Voices Sound Weird to Us?



The musician Mitski Miyawaki knows how her voice sounds when she’s singing. But when she hears her recorded speaking voice, she said, she is often surprised at how high it sounds.

Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

I have a big, dumb, deep, goofy voice.

But I’m reminded of it only when I hear a recording of myself while playing back an interview — or when friends do impressions of me, lowering their voices several octaves.

My high school classmate Walter Suskind has one of the deepest voices I’ve ever heard in person. His experience has been similar to mine.

“My voice sounds pretty normal in my head,” he said. “It’s when I catch the echo on the back of the phone or when I hear myself when it’s been taped that I realize how deep it is. Also, when people come up to me and, to imitate my voice, go as deep as they possibly can and growl in my face.”

He added, “I’ve been told that the one advantage to voices like ours is we make really good hostage negotiators.” (Here’s Walter on an episode of “Radiolab.” His segment starts at about 12:20, and the host immediately comments on his voice.)

Many people have heard their recorded voices and reeled in disgust (“Do I really sound like that?”) Others are surprised how high their voices sound.

The indie musician Mitski Miyawaki, who has earned praise for exceptional control over her singing voice, said that she, too, is often unpleasantly surprised by her speaking voice, which she perceives as “lower, more commanding,” than it sounds to others.

“And then I listen to a radio interview and I’m like ‘uuuch,’ ” she said, making a disgusted noise. “I listen to my voice and I go, ‘Oh it sounds exactly like a young girl.’ ”

Why is that?

There’s an easy explanation for experiences like Ms. Miyawaki’s, said William Hartmann, a physics professor at Michigan State University who specializes in acoustics and psychoacoustics.

There are two pathways through which we perceive our own voice when we speak, he explained. One is the route through which we perceive most other sounds. Waves travel from the air through the chain of our hearing systems, traversing the outer, middle and inner ear.

But because our vocal cords vibrate when we speak, a second path is introduced internally, in which those vibrations are conducted through our bones and excite our inner ears directly.

“The effect of this is to emphasize lower frequencies, and that makes the voice sound deeper and richer to yourself,” Professor Hartmann said.

Except when it doesn’t: Professor Hartmann’s explanation makes sense for many people, including Ms. Miyawaki. But it does not quite work for my classmate Walter or for me.

John J. Rosowski, a professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School who specializes in the middle ear, filled in the gap. He said that there might be variation in our perception given that, within the two pathways Professor Hartmann outlined, there were more nuanced ways for sounds to be perceived by the inner ear.

“There are multiple paths that these vibrations take to get to the skull,” Dr. Rosowski said. “They include the vibrations of the skull itself, which can vary.”

He said that other factors influencing the way vibrations of the voice could travel to the brain included interaction with cerebrospinal fluid, the clear liquid that sits within the brain and spine, and variations in sound pressure in the ear canal.

This variety of routes would naturally “introduce variation in how people perceive their own voices,” he said, and would probably explain why Walter and I are always surprised by our recorded voices.

Professor Hartmann said, however, that he was surprised that I was always so surprised.

“You have a voice on the lower side of normal,” he conceded, “but it’s not enormously deep.”

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