Why do our recorded voices sound strange to us?

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     Terry Gross has one of the most famous voices in radio, but sometimes she doesn't recognize her own voice! (Daniel Burke/for WHYY)

    Terry Gross has one of the most famous voices in radio, but sometimes she doesn't recognize her own voice! (Daniel Burke/for WHYY)

    These days, when you record yourself, even just using your phone, it’s high quality – so what you capture should be a pretty good rendering of the real thing.

    But when you listen to that recording, your own voice sounds weird. As in ‘That’s what I sound like?’

    “The first time I heard myself on the radio I thought I would be ill,” says Terry Gross, host of the popular public radio program “Fresh Air.”

    “It sounded so different than I thought I sounded. I think my voice sounded higher to me.”

    This is a common experience, says physicist William Hartmann. He’s part of the psychoacoustics group at Michigan State University, and applies wave physics to the psychology and physiology of hearing.

    He says when you are listening to yourself as you speak, your voice does indeed sound different to you.

    “The acoustical difference is primarily a boost in the low frequencies that you get when you listen to yourself, and other people don’t get that.”

    He says the boost in the low frequencies happens because of the way that sound travels inside our bodies.

    “When you hear yourself, there’s not only the acoustical pathway, there’s also the pathway through your own body. Principally, through the bones of your head,” he explained. “The acoustical pathway goes through the outer ear, middle ear, and your inner ear, in the way sound normally does. The bone conduction pathway goes immediately to your inner ear. It vibrates the fluids of your inner ear. And that pathway tends to emphasize lower frequencies, particularly the fundamental frequencies of your voice.”

    Terry Gross says she has become used to hearing her own voice coming out of speakers, even in the bathroom of her workplace, and the difference is not as striking to her anymore. But, she says she does occasionally have trouble telling her voice apart from other people’s voices. “Sometimes I walk in and I think – ‘who’s that – is it me?’ Other times I walk in and I think ‘they are playing my tape and I realize – it’s NOT me.'”

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