Thursday, September 06, 2018

COLUMN: Laurel v Yanny


So how's your week going? Mine's going okay -- well, except for that one part when my entire worldview got tossed asunder and I lost all personal identity as my reality came crashing down leaving me in a void of unanswered questions and the realization that my entire life could be a lie.

Other than that, things are pretty decent.

Fair warning: there's a good chance this column could be an abject failure. For one, I'm about to discuss something that's better HEARD than read. For two, since it was all over the news last week, you're probably sick to death of hearing about it.

But sometimes, when something this paramount occurs in our world, it merits careful analysis. I don't care if it's been beat to death by the media, a topic this important deserves our time, our consideration, and a valuable fact-based discussion about what it means to society and the global ramifications that could ensue from such a divisive, far-reaching, and world-changing topic.

I speak, of course, about whether you hear Laurel or Yanny.

In case you've been living under that one rock without wi-fi or emergency access to internet memes, I'll recap: Last week, someone somewhere on the internet posted a sound file. The short clip is a recording that comes from the website vocabulary.com of a robotic male voice offering the correct pronounciation of the word "laurel."

But when some people listen to the clip, they don't hear "laurel." Instead they hear a word that sounds more like "yanny." This is super weird, since "laurel" and "yanny" don't really sound alike at all. But it's true -- a good chunk of the populace clearly hears "laurel" while others plainly hear "yanny." Over the past week, the internet has exploded with questions about how this auditory illusion works.

The answer, as you may expect, is a bit sciency. Speaking to the website "The Verge," Lars Riecke, an assistant professor of audition and cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University, explains that several different factors can play into whether we hear "Laurel" or "Yanny."

One is frequency. The acoustic information that makes us hear "yanny" is a higher frequency than the information that makes us hear "laurel." Hearing loss over time tends to start with higher frequencies, so older people tend to hear "laurel." The audio source can affect the outcome, too. If you're playing the sound over a tinny speaker with little low-end, you might be more inclined to hear the higher frequency "yanny."

But the difference can also be due to our brains and the way we interpret sounds. When we hear something ambiguous, our brains will automatically try to fill in the blanks. If you know some Laurels and are familiar saying the name, that's what you might hear. If you're a fan of well-coiffed new age keyboardists, you might hear Yanni. Or Yanny. Whatever.

The point is, I'm not having it. I am a life-long audio geek, music fan, and weekend DJ. Even at my lowest, I can fall back on the knowledge that I am a world class conoisseur of sound waves. I'm not saying that I'm so conceited and full of myself that I believe I can appreciate audio on a different level than most of you, except that is EXACTLY what I'm saying because music is my oxygen and my well-trained ears rule.

Therefore, I should be able to listen to this clip, simulataneously hear both "Laurel" and "Yanny," and laugh at you poor audio amateurs and your unskilled ears. But no. I've played the clip a hundred times, and all I hear is "Laurel." Not even a hint of "Yanny." As it turns out, I don't have the supersensory hearing I've always assumed I had. In fact, I probably have hearing loss that eliminates high frequencies and makes me only hear "Laurel."

So what does this mean? If I can listen to a word and only hear it one way while half the world hears it another, what ELSE do people hear differently? Is this why I hate dubstep music so much? Can others put on a Skrillex CD and hear a beautiful emotive symphony while I only hear angry robots yelling at one another? Maybe to some ears, Lil Yachty can sing like Pavarotti. I hate to say it, folks, but maybe -- just maybe -- Nickelback is GOOD and we just can't hear it.

This is the kind of thing that keeps me up late. I found a website where you can adjust the frequencies of the original sample until I could finally hear "Yanny." I was hoping there'd be a sweet spot where it might sound like "Lauryannyel," but no dice. I did, however, find a median where I could think to myself, "I want to hear Laurel" and I would, and then "I want to hear Yanny" and I would -- which is frankly just more proof that everything we hear is a lie created by our brain.

My best bet is just to stop thinking about it before I lose all confidence in my ears and they take away my membership badge to the music nerd club. I just need to accept the fact that when I turn on the radio and hear "Stairway to Heaven," it might really be "Hairspray for Kevin." If you hear something different than I do, then so be it, I guess. I still like music the way I hear it just fine. If the only loss I took away from being in the crowd at the 132 decibel assault of My Bloody Valentine live at the Aragon Ballroom was my future inability to hear a robot voice say the word "Yanny," it was a fair price to pay.

Let's let the Laurels be Laurels and the Yannys be Yannys and move on to important matters -- like whether that dress is black & blue or white & gold.

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