The voltage-dependent mechanical activity of outer hair cells (OHC) from the organ of Corti is considered responsible for the peripheral auditory system's enhanced ability to detect and analyze sound. Nonlinear processes within the inner ear are presumed to be characteristic of this enhancement process. Harmonic distortion in the OHC mechanical response was analyzed under whole-cell voltage clamp. It is shown that the OHC produces DC, fundamental and second harmonic length changes in response to sinusoidal transmembrane voltage stimulation. Mechanical second harmonic distortion decreases with frequency, whereas the predicted transmembrane second harmonic voltage increases with frequency. Furthermore, the phase of the second harmonic distortion does not correspond to the phase of the predicted transmembrane voltage. In contradistinction, it has been previously shown (Santos-Sacchi, J. 1992. Neuroscience. 12:1906-1916) that fundamental voltage and evoked mechanical responses share magnitude and phase characteristics. OHC length changes are modeled as resulting from voltage-dependent cell surface area changes. The model suggests that the observed harmonic responses in the mechanical response are consistent with the nonlinearity of the voltage-to-length change (V-delta L) function. While these conclusions hold for the data obtained with the present voltage clamp protocol and help to understand the mechanism of OHC motility, modeling the electromechanical system of the OHC in the in vivo state indicates that the mechanical nonlinearity of the OHC contributes minimally to mechanical distortion. That is, in vivo, at moderate sound pressure levels and below, the dominant factor which contributes to nonlinearities of the OHC mechanical response resides within the nonlinear, voltage-generating, stereociliar transduction process.