The stiffness of sensory hair bundles of both inner (IHC) and outer (OHC) hair cells was measured with calibrated silica fibres in mouse cochlear cultures to test the hypothesis that the mechanical properties of the hair bundle reflect processes underlying mechanotransduction. For OHCs, the displacement of the hair bundle relaxed with time constants of 6 ms for displacements which open transducer channels and 4 ms for displacements which close the channels. The corresponding values of the time constants for IHCs were 10 ms and 8 ms, respectively. A displacement-dependent change in the stiffness of the hair bundle was not observed when the bundle was displaced orthogonally to the direction of excitation. The stiffness of the hair bundle as a function of nanometre displacements from the resting position was remarkably nonlinear. The stiffness declined to a minimum from the resting stiffness by about 12% for OHCs and 20% for IHCs when the hair bundle was displaced by about 20 nm in the excitatory direction, and it increased by a similar amount when the bundle was displaced by 20 nm in the inhibitory direction. The displacement at which the stiffness reached a minimum was within the most sensitive region of the hair-cell transducer function (receptor potential as a function of hair-bundle displacement), and the displacement at which the stiffness reached a maximum was at the point of saturation of the transducer function in the inhibitory direction. The nonlinear displacement-dependent compliance change is reversibly abolished, and the time constant of relaxation of the bundle for excitatory displacements is reversibly reduced, when mechanotransduction is blocked by the addition of either neomycin sulphate or cobalt chloride to the solution bathing the hair cells. The displacement-dependent compliance change was not apparently reduced when the receptor potential was attenuated through the substitution of sodium in the bathing solution with a less permeant cation, tetraethylammonium. These findings suggest that the nonlinear mechanical properties of the hair bundle are associated with aspects of the hair-cell mechanotransducer process. The mechanical properties of the hair bundle are discussed in relation to the 'gating-spring' hypothesis of hair-cell transduction.