The audio version of “the dress” cleaved the internet, and likely your family, your friends, or your office, into two bitterly divided camps on Tuesday: the Laurels and the Yannys.
It began, as it so often does, with a viral clip posted by a high schooler on Reddit, which blew up when Cloe Feldman, a YouTuber and social media influencer, added it to her Instagram story and then to Twitter, asking, “What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel.”
What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I
— Cloe Feldman (@CloeCouture) May 15, 2018
That should have settled it, because it’s obviously “Laurel.” But people out there are convinced, for some reason, that this weird robot voice is repeating “Yanny.” (Some people even claim they alternate between hearing “Laurel” and “Yanny,” or, strangest of all, hear both simultaneously. Some people even hear “Geery” or “Garry” or something in between.)
So what’s going on here? The clip is playing around with frequency — and it depends on the range of frequencies listeners hear.
What “Yanny” and “Laurel” have in common
“There’s just enough ambiguity in this fairly low-quality recording that [some] people are hearing it one way and some people are hearing it another,” Brad Story, the associate department head of speech, language, and hearing sciences at Arizona State University, told me.
Humans typically pay attention to three different frequencies when they’re listening to speech. Story said the lowest of the three frequencies is “absolutely essential” for the L’s and R’s — the consonants that make up “Laurel.”
“So when you’re listening to ‘Laurel,’ the reason you get L, R, and L is because of the movement of that third frequency,” he said.
Here’s the catch. The word “Yanny,” the second frequency, has almost exactly the same pattern as the L, R, L in “Laurel,” he added.
One reason for the confusion is the poor quality of the recording. “Typically, if you have a high-quality recording and you’re listening on a good device of some sort, you’re not ever going to be confused by those,” Story said.
So if you’re hearing “Laurel,” you’re likely picking up on the lower frequency. If you hear “Yanny,” you’re picking up on the higher frequency.
It really comes down to how our brains pick up on and interpret these frequencies, Rory Turnbull, a professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii, said.
Video game developer Dylan Bennett made a video that illustrates what’s going on here:
Okay, you’re not crazy. If you can hear high freqs, you probably hear “yanny”, but you *might* hear “laurel”. If you can’t hear high freqs, you probably hear laurel. Here’s what it sounds like without high/low freqs. RT so we can avoid the whole dress situation. #yanny #laurel pic.twitter.com/RN71WGyHwe
— Dylan Bennett (@MBoffin) May 16, 2018
Turnbull suggested that isolating these frequencies basically homes in on the critical information, making it easier for the brain to pay attention to just “Laurel” or just “Yanny.”
Good news for both “Laurel” and “Yanny” people: the clip is pretty confusing
People might be able to focus on the higher frequencies — the Yannys among us — because they have really great headphones or very good hearing, Benjamin Munson, a professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the University of Minnesota, suggested.
“But for the rest of us with po’folk headphones and old-folk hearing, we just hear the lowest-frequency components,” he wrote in an email.
But maybe don’t panic too much about your hearing if you’re on Team Laurel. One likely source of the confusion is the clip itself, which doesn’t correspond to the sounds humans generally make when they’re speaking.
Vowels and some consonants, like the those heard in “Laurel” and “Yanny,” have many frequencies when humans pronounce them through the vocal tract, Munson wrote, not unlike “hundreds of tuning forks playing at once.”
This is a spectrogram (a visual representation of those frequencies) of the “Laurel versus Yanny” meme. The dark bands represent what are known as “formants,” the frequencies that resonate the loudest. Vowels pronounced by humans have multiple formants, but the first two formants (F1 and F2) are crucial to determining what the vowel sounds like — such as whether you’re making an “eee” sound or an “ooo” sound.
But zoom in on this clip and something is awry, Munson said:
“Where there should be a second formant, there are just speckles that appear random,” he wrote. “One thing about this signal is that it’s hard to track the F2. This is perhaps the first ingredient into why it is so susceptible to being identified differently. The F2 is, for some reason (overlapping voices? Intentional shenanigans? The girl from The Ring?), masked.”
The clip’s fishiness doesn’t end there. Munson said if you zoom out again and take a look at the entire spectrogram, there’s something else going on. “You see some faint stripes that look like lighter-gray formants at those higher frequencies. Those shouldn’t be there,” he wrote. “Humans can’t produce those.”
“I heard the higher-frequency formant sequences when I first listened to this signal two hours ago and thought that they maybe were someone talking in the background. Then I thought ERMERGERD, IT’S THE AUDIO VERSION OF THE RING,” Munson joked.
There isn’t actually another voice in there, he said. It’s just the lower-frequency patterns repeated at a higher frequency. Again, that mismatch — or “shenanigans,” as Munson called it — doesn’t happen with human speech.
Why this is going on in the Laurel/Yanny clip is less clear. “One possibility is that the formant pattern at the higher frequencies is just ‘Laurel’ transposed to higher frequencies, and that ‘Laurel’ sounds like [‘Yanny’] at higher frequencies,” Munson wrote. Another guess is that “Laurel” and “Yanny” got smashed together.
But all this confusion — those so-called “shenanigans” — forces our brains to fill in the blanks of how the clip should sound.
It’s possible that knowing there are two choices — “Laurel” and “Yanny” — preps us to hear one or the other distinctly. Or listeners could be affected by the language they speak, or the last thing they were listening to before they clicked on the meme.
These subtle, weird differences in how the human brain interprets sound is something scientists are constantly trying to better understand, Turnbull said. But for what it’s worth, he added, “this is a really cool auditory illusion.”
More Info: www.vox.com