Hearing relies on mechanical stimulation of stereocilia bundles on the sensory cells of the inner ear. When sound hits the ear, each stereocilium pivots about a neck-like taper near their base. More than three decades of research have established that sideways deflection of stereocilia is essential for converting mechanical stimuli into electrical signals. Here we show that mammalian outer hair cell stereocilia not only move sideways but also change length during sound stimulation. Currents that enter stereocilia through mechanically sensitive ion channels control the magnitude of both length changes and bundle deflections in a reciprocal manner: the smaller the length change, the larger is the bundle deflection. Thus, the transduction current is important for maintaining the resting mechanical properties of stereocilia. Hair cell stimulation is most effective when bundles are in a state that ensures minimal length change.