I’ve been doing lots of talks about voices recently to promote my book Now You’re Talking. If I ask an audience whether they like hearing a recording of their own voices, nearly everyone shakes their head. It seems a really common experience to dislike a recording of your own voice.
The first thing to rule out is that the recorded voice doesn’t jar because it is unattractive. A study published last month showed that people found recordings of their own voice more attractive than others . The researchers also found that people tend to over estimate the attractiveness of their own voice as well! So why do we not like hearing a recording of our own voice?
The voice in your head is different to what others hear
When we talk, we hear our voice via two routes. Some of what you hear comes from the sound going out of the mouth, around the side of the head and into the ears; this is called the airborne path. The second path is bone conduction, with vibrations being passed internally through the body to the ear. Both of these routes will tend to have less high frequencies and so your voice will be somewhat muffled. The treble of the air-borne route is reduced because sound bends less easily around the head at high frequency. The bone conduction route is also naturally less effective at high frequencies.
But if you listen to a recording of your voice, it isn’t simply a bit muffled, the timbre of the voice changes. Measurements show that the relative importance of the airborne and bone conduction routes varies with what you’re saying . For example, for the vowel /a/ the bone conduction route is much quieter and less important than the air-borne route. But for /i/ the bone conduction path gives a big boost to the sound around 2000 Hz.
The picture below shows some the typical frequency content of different vowel sounds as measured on a microphone in front of a talker. The frequencies of the peaks signal what vowel is being said to a listener. Combining airborne and bone conduction routes as happens when we hear ourselves talk doesn’t change the frequencies of the peaks. What does change when you hear your own voice is the height of the peaks. This means the vocal quality or timbre changes. As these alterations depend on what sound you’re making, the effects are in constant flux. This is going to make your voice sound very different inside your head compared to a recording.
Why do we dislike it?
Our voice places a vital part of who we are. When we talk we don’t just pass on words. How we speak reveals something; about who we are, where we come from and how we feel. How things are said is a vital part of communication and our vocal identity reveals intimate details about ourselves. No wonder we don’t like to find out that we sound different and are therefore projecting a different identity to what we thought.
But there is more to this than simply a change in vocal timbre. When we listen to a recording of ourselves, we get a chance to analyse how things were being said. We’ve got lots to think about as we talk, but when we listen back to a recording we can concentrate on what was said and how it was said. Listening therefore reveals how much we’re giving away in our voice, much of which we’re not that aware of as we speak. On occasions it reveals that we’re giving out an impression that we didn’t intend.
I wonder how much this is changing now that voice recordings via mobile videos is getting so common. When I was growing up recording equipment was rare and so I hardly ever heard my own recorded voice. Now it is everywhere. I wonder if younger generations have a different view of their voices because of that? What do you think?
 Reinfeldt, S., Östli, P., Håkansson, B. and Stenfelt, S., 2010. Hearing one’s own voice during phoneme vocalization—Transmission by air and bone conduction. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 128(2), pp.751-762.
 Peng, Z., Wang, Y., Meng, L., Liu, H. and Hu, Z., 2018. One’s own and similar voices are more attractive than other voices. Australian Journal of Psychology.