OPINION: Laurel, Yanny, and the subjectivity of sound

Laurel or Yanny? If you’ve got a life, you’ll have missed yesterday’s kerfuffle aka this year’s blue or white dress nonsense in the media. Apparently a computer generated voice can sound either like Yanny or Laurel. For me it was quite clearly Laurel, and obviously anyone who hears Yanny is wrong… including my better half, who heard Yanny, and now believes me to be quite mad. 

Such is the wide split working its way across the internet. I am intrigued by the media’s need to prime people with a “Laurel of Yanny” choice. A better approach would be to simply ask “what word do you hear?”. Obviously, that wouldn’t be even remotely clickbaity interesting. Human nature can’t be fought — people like to take sides and will do so at any and every possible opportunity.


As it turns out, it’s both words, but at different pitches. Laurel is low, and Yanny is high. This video from The Independent explains it perfectly. So before you come to blows, neither is right or wrong. There are different variables at play here, not least your ears.

But one thing is irrefutably clear — sound is incredibly subjective.

Two people can sit in the same chair, look at the same laptop screen, and hear entirely different words. Just let that sink in for a moment… and then think about what that means for the whole argument about sound quality.

Yes yes I know — this Laurel and Yanny sound file is a scientifically generated and controlled experiment specifically tailored to elicit one name or another. The frequencies are probably optimised so that one cancels out the other as well.

laurel or yanny

But substitute Laurel and Yanny for different vocals. Theoretically, this test would indicate that in particular circumstances, a harmonising duo could sound like just one singer. And now start including complex musical arrangements, different voices and instruments, a variety of listening environments, and of course the biggest variable of all — you. Now you can understand that sound is not a black or white issue — it’s a listening recipe of many different ingredients that never comes out of the audio oven quite the same for everyone.

When people start getting into it in comments and forums, I generally roll my eyes when someone will angrily rebuffs another equally passionate DJ about sound quality. If this test shows us anything, it’s that we all hear things differently, and is dependent on a great many variables.

But when an armchair expert opines about the particular audio characteristics of a setup, product, or pressing, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that what they hear is what we’ll hear. Equally there’s a chance that their hearing is less than satisfactory, but they don’t even know it. Yay — more variables.

It’s possible to perform controlled scientific tests on hearing to determine frequency range, but put the same people in an uncontrolled environment with a heap of variables happening at the same time, and arguments about sound quality go out the window. You only have to walk across a dance floor to understand how music can sound quite different just a few metres apart.


That’s what it comes down to. I could contract a highly specialised audio company to create a perfect listening environment for my non-existent hot stamper collection of rare Blue Note Jazz vinyl, knowing full well that someone else could relax in the clichéd Eames lounge chair that I aspire to and need something entirely different to achieve aural perfection. We can probably agree on a baseline setup that sounds good, but beyond that it comes down to tuning the environment for the personal characteristics and preferences of the listener. Your perfect sound is not mine.

So before you get into rucks with people about how a club standard mixer sounds “true fucking awful” (it really doesn’t), just remember that we’re all different. We hear things with subtle or maybe even large discrepancies to each other, and even then we have personal preferences beyond what producers and mastering engineers have decided what is “the best” sound.

Bottom line — humans aren’t churned out sausage factory style to tight specs. They’re all unique, and as such hear things in a particular way. Nobody is right or wrong. Unless you hear Yanny of course.