Why You Really Hate the Sound of Your Own Voice

May 16th 2016

Pamela K. Johnson

Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear? Maybe because he heard the sound of his voice on an answering machine. (OK, he really got into a scrap with fellow artist Gauguin.)

But seriously, if you’ve ever heard your own voice played back on tape, radio, answering machine, etc., then you know it sounds way different from what you're used to. And not in a good way, as a story on New York magazine's Science of Us website reported this month.

The Sound of Your Voice

“What your voice sounds like when you speak is akin to when [you] put your head against someone’s chest as they're speaking,” said Darryl Moore, aka JMD, a recording engineer in Altadena, Calif. That’s because “you’re hearing your voice internally,” he said, explaining that our bones, tissue, and skin serve as natural filters — what some call skull resonance — that block sounds in your voice that you don’t like.

Darryl Moore

“Your whole life, you’ve been hearing your voice as it goes into the world,” Moore said. “You’re not used to getting it back.” You think you have the dulcet tones of a basset hound, but really you’ve got the high-pitched yap of the Chihuahua. In Moore’s studio, people will listen to themselves and say, “'I sound like that?'" he said. "Everybody feels that way.”

Psychoacoustics is the scientific study of why you sound whack when you talk. Or more accurately, it's the study of sound perception.

The thinking is that hearing is not just about sound waves, but also about how the signals get forwarded to your brain.

“The fundamental problem in accurately perceiving one's own voice is that our ears are poorly placed for hearing our own voices,” said Jae Won Joh in a Quora discussion on Why People Don’t like the Sound of Their Own Voices. “Your entire life, you've been listening to your own voice as if you were around the corner from yourself speaking,” he added.

Even with expensive equipment, you might not hear yourself accurately. All the microphones, digital recorders, tape machines, speakers, headphones, etc., can “color or distort the sound,” Joh said.

Sound Wave

How you hear voices also can have a connection to your mental health. Schizophrenia patients cannot differentiate their natural speaking voices from recorded playback of their voices, research has found. “Schizophrenic patients ... are believed to have a defect in this circuit," Eliezer Sternberg wrote in "NeuroLogic: The Brain’s Hidden Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior," which was excerpted in Slate. "When [a patient] hears his own voice, the unconscious matching system incorrectly identifies a mismatch (false negative) and prevents him from consciously recognizing that it is his own speech that he’s experiencing.”

Simon Cowell Plugs Ears

Music producers use Auto-Tune to correct the voices of singers with less than perfect pitch. In recent years, artists have also used it to give their music a robotic feel, from Kanye West to Frank Ocean to Daft Punk. This suggests that many singers don’t like the sound of their voices, either.

So pretty much we all think we sound terrible. But maybe not Morgan Freeman. Or James Earl Jones. They sound like money.