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June 16, 2024 5 mins

If you take a pull of air from a helium balloon, you'll sound like a cartoon version of yourself for a few seconds. Learn why helium makes you so high pitched in this episode of BrainStuff.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to brain Stuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain
Stuff Lauren voblabomb here with a classic episode from our
podcast archive. In this one, we get into the weird
science behind a goofy party trick using the helium from
a balloon to make your voice go squeaky. Hey brain Stuff,

(00:23):
Lauren vogel bomb here.

Speaker 2 (00:24):
Today's question is why does helium make our voices go
all squeaky? And to answer it we have to ask
three other questions. What is air, what is helium? And
what is your voice? Note here at the top we
cannot technically recommend inhaling helium to play with your voice,
and even if we did, you probably shouldn't take our

(00:44):
medical advice. But if you're going to only pull from
a balloon, not a helium tank, tanks contain compressed gas
that'll pop your lungs, and only take short breaths and
make sure you get some good old regular air in
between goes so that you don't suffocate. Okay, So back
to our questions. First up, air. Air is a gaseous

(01:05):
molecule soup yep, it seems real thin, but it's chalk
full of stuff when it's dry. Air is about seventy
eight percent nitrogen, twenty one percent oxygen, nearly one percent
are gone, and a wee bit of a bunch of
other things carbon dioxide, neon, helium, methane, etc. It can
also contain some water vapor, maybe zero to three percent.

(01:26):
Your voice is the vibration of that air soup created
by sound waves. When you speak, saying, or yodel, you're
pushing air in your lungs out through your throat past
your vocal cords. You can vibrate, loosen, and pull taut
your vocal cords in a number of ways to make
a number of different frequencies of sound. Because the vibrations
are periodic, meaning that their motion is repeated after an

(01:48):
interval of time called a period, the frequencies produced by
your vocal chords are harmonic. The harmonic frequencies that your
vocal chords create are called your voice's pitch. You can
manipulate other parts of your mouth noise maker, your throat, jaw, cheeks,
and tongue to manipulate the way those harmonic frequencies bounce
around inside your head, that is, resonate before they leave

(02:11):
your mouth. This gives more power to the frequencies as
they add to each other, and it creates your voices. Timber.
Timber is one of those great words that's defined by
what it's not. It's not how loud your voice is,
and it's not your pitch. It's any other quality that's
different if two sounds, loudness and pitch are the same. Okay,

(02:33):
all of that makes more or less sense. On to helium.
Helium is an element that's mixed with little air to
fill balloons because helium is less massive, a colloquially termed
lighter than air, and thus makes balloons float in air soup.
It also helps that helium is inert. It doesn't like
reacting with other elements, so it's not likely to cause

(02:53):
an explosion or catch fire or anything else that we
don't like our balloons to do. And it stays a
gas at a wide range of temperatures. But yeah, it's
pretty light. How light are we talking? So light? Helium's
standard atomic weight is just four point zero zero three.
In comparison, nitrogen and oxygen are more than three times

(03:13):
as massive, with standard atomic weights a fourteen point zero
zero seven and fifteen point nine nine nine, respectively. So
when you breathe in helium instead of air. You're filling
your lungs and head cavities with these we atoms that
get pushed around like all heck by sound waves like
Oz's scarecrow in a mosh pit. The atoms that make

(03:34):
up normal air don't oscillate as quickly because they're more massive,
like the tin man in a mosh pit. The practical
outcome of this is that sound waves travel through helium
much faster than they do through air, about three times faster.
Since the sound waves are traveling faster than usual, their
resonances inside your head cavities occur at higher frequencies. Think

(03:54):
of it like a pool table. If you started playing
with ping pong balls instead of pool balls and hit
them with the same that fly around the table, smashing
all into each other at much higher speeds. That means
that less resonance is happening at the lower end frequencies
of your normal air driven voice, meaning the lower frequencies
have less power to them, meaning that the sounds that

(04:15):
emerge from your head cavities and out of your mouth
are the higher frequencies. You sound squeaky like Donald Duck. Ducks,
by the way, get their squeaky quack by virtue of
having a much shorter vocal tract and less headspace for
air than humans. Note that the helium doesn't change the
wavelengths of the sounds emerging from your vocal chords. Doesn't
affect your pitch. If you sing a particular note on

(04:37):
regular air and then on helium, it will be the
same note. It'll only change your timber, and specifically the
timber of your vowels.

Speaker 1 (04:52):
Today's episode is based on a script I wrote for
the brain Stuff video series back when that was a thing.
Brain Stuff is production of iHeartRadio in partnership with how
stuffworks dot Com and is produced by Tyler Clay. Four
more podcasts from my heart Radio visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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