The Science Behind Laurel & Yanny

By now, you’ve most likely heard of the “Yanny” and “Laurel” dispute that has gone viral. But do you understand the science behind it? The study of acoustics, which is the interdisciplinary study of mechanical waves in gases, liquids, and solids which further includes topics of vibration, sound, ultra and infrasound, can help us explain this fascinating auditory phenomenon.

Before I dive into the science behind the phenomenon, I would like to say that the original auditory clip is saying “Laurel”. But if you heard “Yanny”, you aren’t entirely wrong.

A spectrogram is a visual representation of frequencies (pitch) in a specific sound, word, or sentence represented over time. Below you will see a spectrogram of the word “Laurel”, “Yanny” and the viral audio clip.

Capture

“Laurel” is dominated by low frequency energy with less higher frequency energy. “Yanny” is almost the exact opposite; it is dominated by high frequency energy and less low frequency energy. So why the confusion? A clean and crisp audio clip of either word leaves very little room for interpretation. However, the audio clip that has gone viral is ambiguous. The spectrogram of the viral audio clip shows emphasis on low AND high frequencies, which leaves lots of wiggle room for interpretation. Some people might not even hear “Laurel” or “Yanny”!  So what’s the real reason that different people hear different things? Apparently, the viral clip was played over loud speakers and then re-recorded. This re-recording caused significant background noise and exaggerated certain frequencies which allows some people to hear one thing and others to hear something entirely differently. Simply put, a poor audio recording is truly to blame for all the confusion.

Briana 1Briana received her undergraduate degree in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences from the University of Arizona in 2012 and her doctoral degree in Audiology from Rush University Medical Center in 2016.Briana is currently a fellow member of the American Academy of Audiology (AAA) and holds her Certificate of Clinical Competence in Audiology (CCC-A).

Briana’s clinical interests include vestibular diagnostic testing and adult amplification. She has a passion for helping her patients reconnect with the world around them and improving their overall quality of life.

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Photo credit: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/05/16/upshot/audio-clip-yanny-laurel-debate.html