When I was a kid, I wanted, (like every other fabulous child) to be a singer. My primary audience, the spiders in the corner of my shower, thought I was fantastic and encouraged me to write my own song. I was well on my way to stardom when I experienced a horrific setback—I actually recorded my song.
I sung passionately into the cheap tape recorder I’d received for Christmas, and the noise that pierced my ears when I pressed the playback button was more akin to a mosquito than a human.
No, it was actually much worse than that. It was more like a wailing chipmunk trapped in a bear trap, and not even a cute one at that. Was that really what I sounded like? That was the day I decided to put down the microphone (or hairbrush) and concentrate on my writing.
I trust that my story isn’t entirely unfamiliar to most people. The sound of your recorded voice is about as universally despised as stepping in water when you’re wearing socks. Even John Lennon, lead singer of The Beatles, hated his own voice.
To understand why we have this collective hatred, we first have to understand how sound and the voice works.
two different sets of sound waves
Our voices are sound waves, or pressure waves, produced by our vibrating our vocal cords.
Other people hear your voice when the vibrations that your vocal cords produce bounce through the air and hit their eardrum, causing it to vibrate at the same frequency as the incoming sound wave.
Something slightly different happens when you hear your own voice, though, because you’re hearing two different sets of sound waves.
Your eardrums pick up the sound travelling from your mouth through the air, but they also pick up the primary vibrations in your vocal cords that are moving through your vocal tract and in your own head.
When traveling through your head’s tissue and bone, the sound waves lower in pitch, making you perceive your voice to have more bass. So when you hear a recording, you hear your voice minus your internally generated bass, making your voice sound higher and somewhat tinny.
Unfortunately, though, what you hear on a recording is the reality of what your voice sounds like to everybody else. It’s hard to accept, but the idea that the difference is the fault of recording equipment is, with our modern sound equipment, just a form of deep denial.
However, while the physics of sound waves can explain why our voices seem different to us than they do in a recording, it doesn’t really explain why so many of us really, really hate it.
Even John Lennon hated his own voice
John Lennon hated the sound of his own voice. He repeatedly asked Beatles producer and sound engineer George Martin to help mask the normal sound of his voice.
The Uncanny Valley: Why we hate voice recordings and are scared of dolls
The “uncanny valley” is the theory that when something has features that are almost—but not exactly—like a natural being, it causes fear, revulsion, or hatred in us.
That’s why lifelike porcelain dolls with their flawless skin and glazed-over eyes give us the cold sweats. They resemble a human being, but not quite. It’s uncanny.
Another similar example is how many of us feel uncomfortable seeing pictures of ourselves. We spend so much time admiring our own reflections in the mirror that we believe that is how we look.
In reality, though, nobody has a perfectly symmetrical face, and mirrors show us the flipped image of ourselves that we are used to. When we see a picture of ourselves, our features are just slightly off. We’re in the uncanny valley.
Perhaps a similar phenomenon influences our voice perception. We spend our whole lives hearing our own voice. When we hear a recorded version, we’re hearing our “normal” voice, but it’s slightly off. It’s not quite right. It’s uncanny.
Voice is overrated anyway
Luckily, there’s a bright side. With our increasing utilization and dependence on digital communication, we don’t have to worry about the sound of our voice, because we barely speak anymore anyway!
As of the second quarter of 2015, Twitter averaged 304 million active users per month. Why risk somebody knowing what your voice sounds like when you can communicate at least 140 characters of what you intended to say via a tweet?
Some people claim that social media is barely social, but I don’t think condemning technology is the solution. After all, our reliance on social media probably just stems from the simple psychological fact that we hate the sound of our own voices.
As for me, now that podcasts are all the rage, I’m aiming to move past my voice-hating issues. I might even invest in some speech therapy to rid myself of my slight lisp. That part of my voice, though, as much as it pains me to admit it, has nothing to do with how sound waves travel through my head.