The Hearing Science Behind Yanny vs. Laurel

Last update on May, 23, 2018

Science behind the hearing phenomenon

Are you Yanny or Laurel? If you don’t know what we’re talking about, do a quick internet search and you’ll quickly learn about this hearing phenomenon. It turns out that 47% of people hear Yanny while 53% of people hear Laurel. Many people are comparing this viral topic to the black and blue vs. white and gold dress controversy of 2015. While they have both been referred to as an illusion, we’re able to explain both through science.

The answer: Sound frequency

When analyzing Yanny vs. Laurel, we first must take into consideration the quality of the recording as well as how people are listening to it. The original recording was low quality, which can leave a lot of ambiguity for your ears. The various ways and devices people are listening to the clip can also change the way the recording sounds: phones, headphones, speakers, etc.

Another thing to consider is the expectation the listener has while hearing the recording. If you weren’t prompted to choose Yanny or Laurel, you may have heard neither while listening. This leading expectation is called priming.

However, the real mystery of Yanny vs. Laurel lies with sound frequency. The sound waves that allow us to hear Yanny is at a higher frequency, whereas the sound waves that allow us hear Laurel are at a lower frequency. As we age, it’s common that we start losing our ability to hear the higher frequency sounds. It wouldn’t be surprising if someone younger hears Yanny while someone older listening through the same device hears Laurel. Adjusting the pitch of the original recording allows us to hear both Yanny and Laurel. If you adjust the pitch down 30% you can hear Yanny, whereas if you bring the pitch up 30% Laurel is clearly heard.

Examples of low and high frequency sounds

A singing bird on a tree
High frequency sounds include:

  • Birds chirping
  • A child’s squeal
  • Women's voices
  • In speech, consonants like “f,” “s” and “th”

A Jack Russell running in a park
Low frequency sounds include:

  • Dogs barking
  • Lawn mowers
  • The sound of thunder
  • In speech, consonants like “j,” “u,” and “z”

If you think you may be missing some of these sounds you can take a quick online hearing test or schedule a free hearing evaluation at a location near you.

So…what is the correct answer? If you are part of the 53% that said Laurel, you are correct. Don’t believe us? See for yourself - the audio originated on Vocabulary.com as one of 200,000 recorded reference pronounciations.

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