How we hear our voice

Bernadette & Friends14 July 2021
Singer trains her voice

Do you remember the first time you heard your voice on a recording device or mobile phone? What your first reaction was, how astonished you were, maybe also frightened by how foreign your voice sounded ...
Our voice is an instrument, they say. But how we hear it fundamentally distinguishes our voice from all other instruments. Let's say you play the guitar. While you practise, you pay attention to the placement of the guitar on your thigh, you look at the fingers of your left hand with which you grip the strings. But above all, you rely on what you hear to correct yourself. What you hear is also your most important feedback when practising singing.

External and internal feedback

When you play the guitar, your acoustic feedback comes from outside. The sounds are emitted into the room from the sound hole of your guitar. From here, the sounds reach your ears in two different ways: Part of the sound is transmitted by the air and reaches your ears directly, another part is reflected by the walls of the room and thus reaches your ears indirectly. What reaches our ears from outside in closed rooms, whether practising at home or at a performance, is composed of these two transmission paths. When singing as well as when playing the guitar. Here in the picture:

The sound that the audience hears is also made up of these two paths, in other words: what your guitar teacher hears or what your audience hears is essentially the same as what you yourself hear when you play. But here we come across the crucial difference that makes singing so unique.
The singer's instrument is located inside the body. As a result, when we sing, we receive acoustic feedback in a third way: the sound transmitted from our own body, our inner acoustic feedback. It comes from the vibrations that our singing causes in the skull (hence, for example, the word "head voice"), in bones such as the ribcage ("Chest voice") and produced in the body tissues. You know this muffled sound because you have probably covered your ears when you speak. Here in the picture:

Cognitive dissonance

For the audience, even for singing teachers, this sound is not audible. It is muffled by the body tissue and remains enclosed in the singer's body. What the audience hears reaches the room only through the vocal tract of the singer, where it becomes a sound experience through air and room reverberation. When we sing ourselves, however, we always also hear the inner sound transmitted by our own body. Therefore, what we ourselves hear when we sing differs considerably from what our audience hears.
People who have just started Singing lessons may be unpleasantly caught off guard by this difference. The feedback they hear from their singing teacher may not match the perception of their own voice at all. Or the recording of their singing, recorded in the singing studio, does not match at all the sound profile they have had from hearing their own voice internally + externally. This is a "cognitive dissonance", as experts call it, and dealing with it or resolving it is a task that only singers (and professional speakers) face.
It is the beginning of a learning process. Even later on, we have to repeatedly relate the sound profile of our own voice that we are used to hearing internally to the objective sound profile heard by outsiders, the singing teacher or the audience.


This requires patience and a good portion of initial trust in the feedback and practice suggestions of the singing teacher. To get a better feeling for the difference between internal and external feedback, we recommend separating the two completely:

  • Listening inwardly: Sing as you normally would, then sing the same part with your ears covered. Then hold a note, alternating between open and closed ears. This will give you an idea of how your inner hearing blends with the outer hearing while you sing.
  • External listening: Make a recording of yourself during your vocal exercises or while you are singing a song. On the recording you hear your voice as your audience hears you. - To make sure that your recorder is reproducing your voice accurately, make a test recording with a good friend and compare: If your friend sounds the same as in reality, the device will also reproduce your voice correctly.

The interplay between inner and outer hearing, between self-perception and external perception of one's own voice is an ongoing task for everyone who works on their voice. If we keep at it, the chances are good that step by step we will be able to transform the initial foreignness of our own voice from the first recording into a sound profile that is well received by the audience and that we recognise as our very own sound.

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