Hey, could you do me a favor? Listen to this recording real quick:
Thank you for allowing me to ruin your day. Because as you may have guessed, not everyone hears the same thing when they listen to this cursed piece of audio.
I, for instance, correctly hear “Laurel,” spoken in a deep male voice with the diction of a seasoned radio announcer. Some of my colleagues hear “Yanny,” in a higher-pitched, slightly more nasal voice. Or so they say, because no matter how much I mess with the audio I can hear only Laurel … only Laurel.
In Slack, a chat program that our newsroom uses to communicate about important work business, the effects were clear:
The conversation escalated from there, and a few minutes later, I told a “Yanny”-hearing colleague that she was Satan.
It wasn’t just our newsroom, however. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, “Laurel” was trending on Twitter, which means it has also become content on pretty much every news website, including The Washington Post.
On Wednesday, the question had not disappeared. “Yanny or Laurel?” has only grown in strength.
The Verge did its best to figure out why this was happening, calling up a few scientists who listened to the recording and gave their best guesses.
One suggested it had to do with how we age: As people get older, they lose the higher range of their hearing, so maybe only The Olds can hear “Laurel” and not “Yanny.” (In our small, unscientific Slack debate, the Yanny/Laurel divide didn’t split cleanly through age ranges, however.) Or, it could be the speakers you’re using to listen to the file, and which frequencies they’re emphasizing. Some of my colleagues were able to hear both, depending on the volume of their speakers: Yanny with low volume, Laurel when it was louder. But that didn’t work for me, both through my speakers and my headphones.
The only way I was able to hear anything approximating “Yanny” was in this video experiment with the viral post, when the pitch shifts down significantly at the 2:15 mark. But even then, I don’t clearly hear “Yanny.” It sounds more like “Yaley” or “Yelley.”
Another researcher who talked to the Verge suggested that because the file itself was so noisy, it could be that people are filling in the sounds they don’t hear clearly with what they expect to hear. Since there’s a visual prompt in the video, your brain is already anticipating two specific possible words.
It would be easier to figure out what’s going on with the actual file if we had the original. So where, exactly, did this unholy resurrection of “The Dress” debate come from?
The video in the tweet that popularized it looks very much like an Instagram poll. Cloe Feldman, the YouTuber with nearly 4 million subscribers on her main channel who tweeted the audio clip, said in an email that she found the audio clip on Reddit, and then re-posted it to her Twitter and Instagram, where it went viral.
“I am hoping to find the person that created the soundbite,” She told me. “My reshare of it made it go viral but I would love to give credit to the person that created it so I am on a hunt.” She also made a Youtube video for her personal channel in which she asks for help finding the original creator:
The Redditor who posted the clip before Feldman made it go viral appears to be RolandCamry.
They wrote that the originator recorded the video by playing the vocabulary.com pronunciation guide to “laurel” through their speakers. According to their posts to Reddit about the clip, they “also had friends saying they hear yanny from the vocabulary.com audio.”
Wired talked to the Redditor and their friends, and learned that the Instagram poll they reposted was created by one of RolandCamry’s classmates at their Georgia high school.
“Trust me i don’t know what’s going on either,” the Redditor wrote. “it is black magic.”
Anyway, thank you for clicking on my piece about this very important and newsworthy topic.
(this post, which was originally published at 5:37 on May 15, has been updated, and the time stamp has been changed)