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Singing in the shower seems to sound better, but what is actually happening to the sound waves in that soapy, tiled room?

Hosted by: Stefan Chin
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[ ♪ Intro ♪ ].

Remember when you had that impromptu jam session in the shower, belting out the lyrics to “Like a Prayer”? You know you nailed it.

But then, when you tried to recreate the moment with your friends during that long road trip, you were less Madonna and more… wet cat. So if it seems like some kind of magic happens to your voice when you step into a steamy stall, that’s because bathrooms usually do have some pretty wonderful acoustic properties. So you really do sound better to yourself when you sing in them.

Shower stalls tend to be made of smooth, hard surfaces like tile. When sound waves hit them, they’re reflected back at you rather than absorbed or dispersed. And the reflected sound amplifies your voice—basically, cranking up the volume.

But your voice isn’t just louder. Because the various walls of your shower are different distances from your mouth, some of the sound waves from your singing travel slightly farther, so they take a fraction of a second longer to get back to your ears. And, because the walls are made of smooth, hard surfaces, the waves continue to bounce around from wall to wall, so you continue to hear quieter reflections of the sound for longer than you would in, say, your living room.

This effect, called reverberation, gives you the impression that the note you sang lasted a little longer than you actually held it. Reverberation can also smooth the transition between notes as the reflecting waves overlap when they reach your ear, so it’s not as noticeable when you’re off key. A lot of karaoke microphones are actually designed to take advantage of this by adding reverberation electronically.

Isn’t that so nice of them to make sure you don’t completely embarrass yourself onstage? Still, your shower performance sounds even better than your karaoke rendition thanks to another acoustic property of bathrooms: resonance, where sound waves line up in just the right way to amplify the sound. In the shower, that happens when the wavelength of a note matches up with the size of the room in a way that makes the peaks of the reflected waves line up.

Lots of different notes will resonate in there, but they’ll also combine with other reflected sound waves in a way that cancels out some of the sound. This effect is much more noticeable with the deeper, bass tones because they have longer wavelengths, with more distance between the peaks. So instead of the amplified and muted sounds being distributed all over the room, it’s more like there are a few spots where your bass notes sound either a little muted or totally awesome.

The acoustics in the shower are so good that recording artists sometimes use them, too. Weird Al’s first hit single “My Bologna,” was recorded in a bathroom. And the Pixies dragged their equipment into the studio bathroom to get the perfect sound for "Where Is My Mind?" and "Gigantic." Of course, all of this means that unless you drag your crew into the stall with you, they’re probably never going to hear just how beautiful your rendition of “Like a Prayer” can be.

Thanks for asking, and thanks as always to our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help us decide what questions to answer, or get access to a lot of cool stuff that you can’t get anywhere else, head over to [ ♪ Outro ♪ ].