By now, folks online have listened to the now-infamous Yanny and Laurel clip a lot. I’ve probably listened to it 200 times since Tuesday afternoon, which is about 198 more than I expected.
And after spending the length of four Carly Rae Jepsen songs listening to a four-second audio clip, I can say confidently that I’m Team Laurel. Occasionally, though — especially when I listen at a very low volume — I can make out a squeaky Yanny. These are exciting moments. I feel like I’ve cracked the code!
To be clear, we pretty much know what’s going on with the clip now, including its benign origins. According to the Redditor who started this whole mess, the viral audio was recorded from the Vocabulary.com entry for the word “laurel,” meaning that those Team Laurel stalwarts are technically correct.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not an ambiguous recording. And if you’re still just hearing Yanny? That’s (probably) totally fine too.
it’s so clearly laurel. I can’t even figure out how one would hear yanny.
— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) May 15, 2018
Whether you hear Yanny or Laurel is in part due to the volume at which you perceive certain frequencies. The sounds that compose the tinny “Yanny” sound are of a higher frequency than those that compose “Laurel.” That’s why when some people turn the volume down — thus ridding the clip of much of its bass — they’ll hear Yanny. When the volume is turned back up, or if the audio is played on speakers with a higher bass response, they’ll probably hear Laurel.
It’s also important to remember that no two people hear the same things when listening to any given piece of audio. People have varying sensitivities to different frequencies, so your brain may interpret noises differently than others.
Another factor is personal expectation. If you’re interested in hearing Laurel, your brain is more likely to pay attention to those sounds. If you’re interested in hearing Yanny, it’s more likely your brain can pull it off under the right circumstances (sound mixing, speakers, headphones, et cetera).
“The brain… hears what it wants to and what it thinks it should hear,” Justin Golub, an assistant professor of otology, neurotology, and skull base surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, said in an interview.
“Some people, because of past experiences — an ex named Laurel? — may simply be more likely to hear one versus the other,” he explained. (Here’s looking at you, Yanni stans.)
Some people, especially when they know they can potentially hear two different words, are able to mentally toggle between the two words. As Popular Mechanics pointed out, it’s kind of like when you focus on the person talking to you at a noisy party, then switch focus to eavesdrop on the person behind you.
But what if you can’t toggle between the two? What if you are squarely Team L or Team Y, no matter how many times you listen? Is there something wrong with your ears?
In short, not necessarily. Yes, it’s true that our ability to hear high frequencies diminishes as we age, particularly if we’ve sustained any hearing damage along the way. So if you’re Team Laurel, Golub explained, it could be that you’ve lost some of your ability to hear high frequencies.
However, your Y/L alliance could also involve a number of other factors. Susannah Levi, an associate professor of communicative sciences and disorders at New York University, said in an email that in addition to hearing ability, how you listen to the clip affects how you perceive it. (The University of Minnesota’s Ben Munson made the same point in an in-depth post on Wednesday.)
For example, if you’re listening on “stellar headphones versus crappy ones,” you might be able to perceive higher frequencies with more ease, Levi said.
Another potential influence is background noise — in the sound mix or around you IRL — which Levi explained can “mask [or] obscure lower versus higher frequencies.”
Okay, okay. Team Laurel is taken care of. But what if you can still only hear Yanny despite knowing the clip is actually Laurel?
Again, a number of things could be going on here.
Perhaps you knew about the Yanny/Laurel divide before listening, and your brain thought it “should,” as Golub explained, hear Yanny.
Perhaps your unshakable Yanny devotion is due to your headphones, or your speakers, or your environment, or the particular mix of the clip you have plucked off the internet. (It was originally posted on Instagram, then Reddit, then Twitter, which, as Wired pointed out, could all compress files differently.)
I’m a Yanny with a Laurel rising
— Extra Credit (@ExtraCredit) May 15, 2018
Perhaps you’ve simply retained incredible access to high frequency information! In any event, congrats. I still can only hear Laurel.
Golub, for his part, thinks that even the staunchest Yanny devotees can “train themselves to hear Laurel” if they play the clip with the bass turned up high enough.
“I know this because I tried!” he said.
Anyway, there’s probably nothing wrong with you, aside from the fact that you’ve spent so long thinking about a four-second piece of audio from Vocabulary.com. But, hey, so have over 13 million people. You’re in good company.
But no matter what word you hear, remember to get your ears checked regularly. Also, does anyone know what color this dress is?