Although sound-producing (sonic) muscles attached to fish swimbladders are the fastest known vertebrate muscles, the functional requirement for such extreme speed has never been addressed. We measured movement of the swimbladder caused by sonic muscle stimulation in the oyster toadfish Opsanus tau and related it to major features of the sound waveform. The movement pattern is complex and produces sound inefficiently because the sides and bottom of the bladder move in opposite in and out directions, and both movement and sound decay rapidly. Sound amplitude is related to speed of swimbladder movement, and slow movements do not produce perceptible sound. Peak sound amplitude overlaps fundamental frequencies of the male's mating call because of muscle mechanics and not the natural frequency of the bladder. These findings suggest that rapid muscle speed evolved to generate sound from an inefficient highly damped system.