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On Reading And The Voice In Your Head

A painting of a woman reading a letter, by Gerard Terborch, circa 1662.  The image, for this post, represents the fact that you'll often read a letter with the writer's voice narrating it in your head

When you read a book to yourself, do you hear a voice reading to you as though you were listening to an audiobook? As someone who does hear a voice, this is a subject I’ve pondered for a long time. And when I say long time I mean since I was a child. Yes, it’s ridiculous – I’ve never thought to ask anyone before. But I am assuming that most if not all people read via this voice, because I cannot comprehend reading without it, there would literally be no comprehension. So today I am taking the stance that everyone hears a voice, reads with a voice, in order to write this post.

When you read, is the voice you hear your own or another? Often, if I’ve watched the TV adaptation, I find the narrator reading the book for me. Every now and then the actors will take over during dialogues, though this really is rare. It is generally a case of a narrator, if there was one, reading the entire book to me, or one particular actor reading it all. I don’t tend to get to choose the actor, which occasionally leads to unsavoury characters getting more of a look in than they should. Thankfully whichever voice “reads” the book to me doesn’t effect my enjoyment of the text.

But if it’s not your voice and it’s not a narrator’s then whose it is? I can’t say the voice I hear is my own, and whilst without the influence of media it is generally the same one (I think – I can’t say I’ve conducted a survey) it does change sometimes. I have wondered if perhaps it is an idealised voice – my voice altered – or that there may be some sort of supernatural occurrence going on. I hope it’s the former rather than the latter.

So when the voice changes per book it tends to fit the gender of the author and how I picture them as sounding. If I’ve seen a photograph of them that will inevitably come into play, and certainly if I have met the author they will be the one reading the book to me, no question. Both of these elements can make the book better, especially in the case of having met the author. I believe the reasons why are obvious and known to every reader, but as an example I have attended lectures by Richard Rex, a rather quirky historian with a marvellous intellect and funny to boot. Hearing his voice read his book to me definitely helped me to enjoy it further because I could comprehend the text from a more familiar angle.

Why does this happen – why do I, we, hear a voice in our heads when we read? Is it because of my theory that we wouldn’t be able to comprehend the text otherwise, and if this is so what do readers who are deaf from birth do? Is there anyone who doesn’t read with a voice in their head?

For all I know, at this rate I could be the next Ana Steele…


Tanya Patrice

September 19, 2012, 2:28 am

The voice in my head doing the reading is definitely NOT Anna Steele :-) But – I never thought about it before – I think maybe for me, it’s the character(s) … but sort of like a nondescript version who is narrating the story – that takes a back-seat to the action taking place.


September 19, 2012, 8:31 pm

I think everyone has that voice in their head but perhaps people who read more have a voice who does better character impressions and emotions? :)

I don’t think mine is particularly exciting, either – just a general narrator. But it works for me!


September 20, 2012, 12:51 pm

I’m fairly certain my reading “voice” is the same as my thinking to myself voice. Like, “Did I turn the dryer on?” voice. I’m not sure if it’s my actual voice, since I hate the sound of myself speaking.


September 20, 2012, 2:30 pm

I think everyone reads and ‘hears’ themselves reading it, in fact the key to speed reading is trying to not hear that voice.

When I read, I hear my voice (less nasally), occasionally I hear a bad accent, but for the most part I hear a more emotive and expressive version of my own speech patterns. I speak more eloquently in my mind that I will ever be able to vocalise. (I think this comes from the speed in which I think and my body not being able to keep up with it, but that is a tangent for another time).


September 20, 2012, 7:29 pm

I sometimes hear a voice, sometimes not. If there is a movie or television show, I often hear the actor’s inflections. But most often I don’t hear the words, just see them.


September 20, 2012, 8:10 pm

Tanya: I think Steele would be a worrying person to have in one’s head! Yes, I understand that – I’m finding what you describe to be the case in the current book I’m reading where the author is dead and it’s never been filmed so there is no reference. Your mind sort of conjures up voices for the characters.

Aarti: Glad to hear that it’s a mass situation! In general my voice is similar to yours.

Chris: Funny you should say that, because now I’m scrutinising my voice I find that when it’s the bog-standard one it *could* be a variation of me. Maybe it’s the voice you picture yourself having?

Alice: That’s interesting – I was wondering if that might be the key to speed reading, but I couldn’t see how one could do it, especially at a faster pace. Yes, I’ve been finding that too. I’m not the best speaker but my mind is completely fluent. I suppose not having to vocalise takes one less step out of the situation to make it easier. Speaking fast is difficult!

Liviania: As someone who always hears a voice I find that fascinating. Great to have your experience (I suppose that’s the word for it) included here, too.



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