News & Events

Yanny vs. Laurel: How your perception dictates what you hear


It's the debate that's sweeping the nation and dividing families, friends and co-workers. What do you hear when you listen to this clip? Yanny or Laurel?  

How can I hear something totally different than my friends and coworkers? 

Our brain distinguishes the different sounds of speech by the relationship between the lower and higher frequency content in the signal called formants. As we move our tongue in our mouth to form the different sounds for speech the shape of our vocal tract alters the relationship between the first and the second formant. The noise in the recording has spectral energy that is similar to both words and depending on which grouping of spectral energy our brain latches on to affects which word we hear. Moving the fundamental frequency (pitch) of the voice in the sample higher or lower can alter which grouping of formants our brain perceives most prominently and thus which word we hear.

I've heard that quality of the Yanny vs. Laurel clip is part of the explanation. Can you tell us more? 

The low quality of the recording definitely is interacting with how we perceive speech sounds. Which word people hear is also affected by the quality of the speaker being used or the degree of hearing loss of the listener.

Is it possible for me to hear both Yanny and Laurel?

Yes, based on the quality of the speaker that you're using. If you want to hear both, The New York Times created a tool that alters the pitch of the voice so that people can hear both words.