The Concert Hall of One… or, Why do I sound different on a recording?

“The Concert Hall of One” was David Blair McClosky’s term for the way we hear ourselves when speaking or singing.  The rest of the world hears us differently.  Why is this so?

The sound of your voice reaches your inner ear in two ways.  Sound conducted by air enters the auditory canal of the ear and impacts the eardrum, which transmits the sound down the middle ear and finally into the fluid filled spiral of the inner ear called the cochlea.   Sound conducted by bone travels through the medium of bone and body tissue directly to the cochlea in the inner ear.

You hear your own voice, by both transmissions of the sound (from the air and through the bone).

The rest of the world hears only the sound coming through the air.

To get a better sense of this difference, block your ears and sing normally.  You will hear primarily bone-conducted sound.  Generally this bone-conducted sound is perceived as deeper and rounder.When  you hear your own voice via a recording, however, the bone conduction signal is no longer dominant.  That is what the rest of the world hears.

If you are trying to sing for the public, for money or not, you cannot sing for the Concert Hall of One; you must sing the sounds that sound best to the rest of the world. As singers, we need to learn how the voice that sounds best to the world sounds to us, and how to reproduce that sound, through sensation, adjusting how we hear ourselves, or both.

No other musician has this challenge, because they hear their instrument just as the audience does, through the air.   This difference is one of the main reasons that even high-level professional singers often  continue to work with teachers or coaches; we cannot trust our own ears.

Fortunately, in this age of technology, most of us have very easy access to recording through our phones.  As a voice teacher I recommend that students record their lessons. I also recommend that one record practice sessions occasionally.  The smart phone of 2020 is good enough to get a sense.  However, the speakers on phones aren’t very good.  You should play back your recording on a dock or with speakers, to get a more accurate sense of your vocal quality.  .

While a student and as a young professional I hated to hear recordings of myself, usually they had been made in performance.  I was always unhappy with the recording and noticed many things I could have fixed.  At some point I wised up and started to record myself several weeks before the performance, then listen critically to the recording, making notes in my music, and correcting what I didn’t like over the next few weeks.  It was a steep learning curve, very humbling, and yet, I must admit, very productive.  Soon I didn’t mind listening to the recordings of my own performances!

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