The Internet was set ablaze last Monday when Reddit user “RolandCamry” posted online a brief audio clip of the Vocabulary.com pronunciation of “laurel.”
It’s not actually an illusion. In fact, it’s an ambiguous figure, the auditory equivalent of two figures in profile that also form a vase, called Rubin’s vase. “The input can be organized in two alternative ways,” he says.
The secret is frequency. The acoustic information that makes us hear Yanny is higher frequency than the acoustic information that makes us hear Laurel. Some of the variation may be due to the audio system playing the sound, Reicke says. But some of it is also the mechanics of your ears, and what you’re expecting to hear.
Older adults tend to start losing their hearing at the higher frequency ranges, which could explain why Riecke could only hear Laurel, but his eight-year-old daughter could hear Yanny. It’s a phenomenon you can mimic on a computer, he says: if you remove all the low frequencies, you hear Yanny. If you remove the high frequencies, you hear Laurel.
Most sounds — including L and Y, which are among the ones at issue here — are made up of several frequencies at once. So the problems with perception might have something to do with that. But Riecke suspects that these overlap more in the real world than in the audio recording that’s driving everyone up the wall. He thinks that the frequencies of the Y might have been made artificially higher, and the frequencies that make the L sound might have been dropped, Riecke says, although he notes this is speculation. Without knowing where this recording came from, he can’t be sure.
So if your sound card — or your ears — emphasize both the higher and the lower frequencies, you can toggle between the two sounds. And changing the sound mix to emphasize higher or lower frequencies might tip you toward Laurel or Yanny. That’s what it took for Riecke — changing his headset wasn’t enough.
However, according to Brad Story, Professor of Speech, Language and Hearing at The University of Arizona:
“Part of it involves the recording: It’s not a very high quality. And that in itself allows there to be some ambiguity already.”
Then, he said, you have to take into account the different ways people are listening to this — through mobile phones, headphones, tablets, etc.
That aside, Story ran an acoustic analysis on the viral recording of the computerized voice. He also recorded himself saying “Yanny” and “Laurel,” for comparison.
“When I analyzed the recording of Laurel, that third resonance is very high for the L. It drops for the R and then it rises again for the L,” he said. “The interesting thing about the word Yanny is that the second frequency that our vocal track produces follows almost the same path, in terms of what it looks like spectrographically, as Laurel.”
OK, so what does that all mean?
“If you have a low quality of recording, it’s not surprising some people would confuse the second and third resonances flipped around, and hear Yanny instead of Laurel.”
Story also said that, if you change the pitch of the original recording, you can hear both words.
“Most likely the original recording was ‘Laurel,'” he said.
- Yanny or Laurel: What do you hear in this audio recording?
- Science can explain why some people hear Laurel and others hear Yanny
- BBC Trending: ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny’? People can’t decide
- Yanny or Laurel? The man who behind the viral audio clip reveals what he actually said
- One of our favorite people is Ohio State’s Professor Gail Whitelaw; and in this May 17th Facebook public post, she wrote:
Was just informed that we have had the first person call in [to their outstanding Speech & Hearing Clinic ~Ed.] to schedule an initial audio because of the Laurel/Yanni mystery and her concern that it’s her hearing. If this stupid thing drives anyone who is concerned about their hearing to schedule a hearing evaluation, then I’ll get over my annoyance with this ridiculousness!
- May Is Better Hearing & Speech Month: Get Your Free Hearing Health Checkup if you heard “Yanny”!
You get your vision & dental health checked annually, so you should also get your hearing health checked every year as well. May is Better Hearing & Speech Month, and almost every hearing care professional offers free screenings as a public service. What’s more, even if your hearing is good, these screening results can be forwarded to your doctor to become part of your permanent medical records; and will come in handy down the road if you have a problem with your hearing. What’s more, these professional screenings can tell you more than the sometimes-dodgy school and OSHA screenings, which often miss significant problems.
- Your humble Editor heard “Laurel” through his PC, connected via a docked Phonak Roger v1.1 Pen to his Phonak Naida Q90 UP hearing aids with dedicated Roger 10-02 receivers.
- Even President Trump weighed in!