If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the Yanny vs. Laurel debate over the past few days, well then you’re a better person than we are. But if you’re one of the scores of people who’ve tweeted with 100 percent certainty about which name is being uttered in the viciously viral clip that has taken the internet by storm this week, well, there’s a very good reason why you think you’re right. (Spoiler alert: You’re not. But also, you are. Let us explain.)
University of Arizona professor of speech, language and hearing sciences Brad Story did a waveform analysis for Popular Science in an effort to explain the phenomenon. So Billboard got Story on the phone to break it down layman style and offer up the science on why what you hear is based on factors like frequency, the mechanics of our mouths and wave patterns, but also mostly all the other things you’ve heard in your life up until now.
“What appears to be happening is in the analysis of the word ‘Laurel’ … when we speak and we move our tongue and our jaw and our lips around what we’re actually doing is we’re controlling primarily three particular frequencies that we encode all of language in,” Story tells Billboard. “And when you produce the world ‘Laurel,’ the most important one of those frequencies is the third one, which starts at a high frequency on the ‘L’ and then drops back into a low frequency for the ‘R’ and back to an ‘L,’ so it has this kind of U-shaped pattern.”
The word “Yanny” has a similar U-shaped pattern, according to Story, but the acoustic features are slightly different, going high-low-high again, but shifting in the second resonance, not in the third. That explains why a low-quality, ambiguous recording like the one that set off the meme would cause some people to lock on to one versus the other and hear two different words.
That’s a lot of technical jargon for the non-linguistic experts among us, so Story broke it down in even simpler detail and answered the real burning question: Does it have anything to do with how our individual brains are wired?
“I wouldn’t say there’s a specific mechanism [in our brains], but we are creatures who are always looking to categorize a pattern, so we use lot of ‘top-down’ information, which is all the information we have from all the experiences we have in our life, and we use that to interpret perceptual information that’s coming into the system,” he says. “So in this case, if you’re primed for ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny,’ number one, you’re going to know it’s going to be one of those two, then it kinds of depends on how your perceptual system locks on to one of those cues. Whether it’s that third resonance I was talking about or if someone is hearing it more as that second resonance. So without any context, in this meme, this word is being presented purely in isolation without any context.”
In other words, if you put the names in a sentence where clearly someone was referring to someone everybody can identify as Laurel, there would be no confusion, or vice versa. Because all the experiences we have packed into our brains come to bear on how we perceive the meme; some will hear Laurel and others Yanny. But there is one other crucial factor in what your brain is telling you: sound quality.
“When you have this very isolated sound, which is also not very high-quality, all kinds of things can happen and it doesn’t take very much to flip us one way or the other,” he says. If the recording was in pristine digital fidelity and you were listening on high quality speakers Story is confident there would be no ambiguity at all.
In case you were wondering, Story hears Laurel, and here’s why. “The analysis I did makes it absolutely clear that the original recording is Laurel,” he says. From what Story has gathered, there is a lot of “weird stuff” on the recording, which to him sounds like it was digitized from a magnetic tape and copied over and over, then degraded further due to compression algorithms that came into play when it was posted on Twitter, compounding the subtle modifications to the file that contribute to the ambiguity.
Listen again for yourself, and see what you hear.
What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I
— Cloe Feldman (@CloeCouture) May 15, 2018
By the way. It’s “Laurel.” Sorry.