The clear science behind why people sound different than they think
It can be a particularly strange experience: someone plays back an audio clip of their voice recorded just moments before, but to the person their voice sounds… off, really off. That voice in their head, the one they hear when they talk to other people all day long, comes out differently than they thought. Most people expect it to sound a little bit lower than what they hear coming out of the speaker.
Why is it that you sound different than you think?
The simple answer has everything to do with density. Sound must travel through a medium to be heard, simply because sound works by waves vibrating through that medium. Change the medium, and the sound gets changed too.
We are most used to sound traveling through air, but humans experience it through denser media occasionally as well. When kids in the pool will talk to each other under water, for instance. The water will make regular voices sound warped. That’s because the water is so full of matter that it slows down the sound waves as they pass through it. This results in longer frequencies, which mean lower sound.
When that sound hits a person’s ear, it vibrates the drum on the border of their outer ear. That in turn vibrates the three bones in the middle ear, which translate the air waves to liquid waves to be perceived by the cochlea, which rests inside the inner ear.
The voice a person hears when they talk out loud is traveling through air, but it’s also traveling through an even denser material than water — their skull. This phenomenon is referred to as bone conduction. The result is a combination of two sets of waves: one set that travels from the vocal folds, to the environment, to the ear; and another set that reaches the ear straight through the material in the skull.
In fact, that inner-audio goes directly to the cochlea in the inner ear, bypassing the ear drum and tiny bones in front of it.
Neither of these versions of the sound is really the “true” audio. The fact is that any material will distort sound. But the less dense the material is, the easier the waves will pass through, and the longer it will be allowed to travel.
When someone hears a recording of their speaking voice, they are missing the sound coming through their skull. All they are getting is the unadulterated voice without the distortions of their pesky body. This can be a pretty jarring experience for most — particularly because the version of this sound that feels so alien is apparently the correct version. This occurrence causes so many people to feel self-conscious about being recorded, because it challenges the belief that the way we perceive our environment is accurate.
Logically, the voice a person is most familiar with — their own — should be the one they can perceive the most truly. However, our own internal biases prevent us from being able to perceive our voice with the kind of fidelity that a high quality stereo system can. It’s the type of conundrum that makes a person stop and wonder — what else are we assuming about ourselves that might be a little distorted?
At Backtracks, we help people understand audio through data. We think about issues like, “Why do first time podcasters have such a jarring experience hearing their own voice?” If you need help hosting your podcast, getting analytics, and more then please do check us out.