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'Yanny' or 'Laurel' ? - - the internet wants to know

Audio representation on Adobe Audition software of 'yanny' or 'laurel,' (depending on your perception)
Audio representation on Adobe Audition software of 'yanny' or 'laurel,' (depending on your perception)

There are plenty of political and other controversies to keep people busy on social media. But for at least a few days this week, one of the biggest trending disputes has to do with what you think you heard.

You may have already had this argument with your co-workers, when you heard a brief audio clip of a computerized voice that sounds like it’s saying either, “laurel“  or  “yanny.”

It’s not as simple as you think; different people have heard different things.

Especially if they heard the word played at either a slower speed or a faster speed.

And you shouldn’t be surprised by the confusion, says Dave Sluberski, who is a senior lecturer in the School of Film & Animation at RIT and also a recording engineer with the RPO. He’s also a former senior audio technologist at WXXI.  He compares it to tasting wine.

“You drink one red wine, you drink the next one, you go back, you’re like confused, which one do I like better, so I think the same thing could be said for this phenomena, you listen to it over and over and then there’s different interpretations and your brain just sort of freaks out.”

Sluberski says there are a lot of factors that affect what your ear perceives.

“So, combined with how your ear works, what you’re listening on and also the distribution, if it’s an mp3, it could be data compressed, a lot of artifacts, so there are so many variables…”

Sluberski says how loud you make the sound can also influence what you hear. 

Here’s a short explanation Sluberski provided through RIT:

What am I hearing? Is it Yanni or Laurel?

The brain and ear together makes a quite a toolset, selectively listening and/or blocking what we hear.

In this particular situation, I offer some suggestions as to why a listener may hear one interpretation or the other: many years ago, Harvey Fletcher and Wilden A. Munson determined equal loudness curves for the ear -- basically, the frequency of how we hear things changes with the volume of the source.

If we crank up the music, we will hear more of the bass frequences. Play it at a lower volume and it’s still there, but our ears hear it differently. There are other areas of frequency but the bass is the largest area. In this example of Yanni/Laurel, what device are we listening on? Data compression artifacts, which are created by reducing the sound file size for distribution (such as mp3) can also create issues. Everyone listens differently, and depending on which thing you hear first, may also influence the aspect of the sound that you think is dominant.

Try playing the sound file at a very low volume, then try raising the volume level and see if it changes your perception.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.