Laurel & Yanny: Sound Perception

Do you hear Laurel? Or do you hear Yanny? This case of sound perception has been dividing the internet for the past few days. You can find the offending audio clip all over social media.

As with the famous dress of 2015, the audio clip is some sort of illusion. Some people clearly hear “Laurel” and others clearly hear “Yanny.”

Sorry Team Yanny, it’s actually Laurel.

In this post, I am going to share with you what we as musicians can learn from Laurel & Yanny.

Gold vs. Silver

In the flute community, there are people who prefer the sound of gold flutes and those that prefer the sound of silver flutes. Silver and gold are the two most common materials of flute, but every flutist has their preference.

What this audio clip proves is that we all hear certain things differently. It can explain why one flutist will only play gold flutes and why another might only want to play silver flutes.

It’s not that gold or silver is definitively better than the other. The two materials have their own unique qualities, and we all hear things in our own ways.

C foot vs. B foot

A recent thing I learned was that the length of the flute can affect how it sounds. The longer tube of a B foot flute can make it sound darker. A shorter C foot flute sounds brighter.

Or so they say.

I’m not a scientist, but it would make sense that a tube’s length would affect the sound waves that the tune produces.

A B foot also weighs more than a C foot, and that added weight *can* darken the sound of a flute.

Drawn vs. Soldered Tone Holes

Like the C foot vs B foot conundrum, soldered tone holes are argued to have a darker and richer sound than drawn tone holes. This is because the tone holes are heavier.

Drawn tone holes are “drawn” from the metal that is part of the tube of the flute. Soldered tone holes are manufactured separately from the tube and then soldered on.

As with different metals and different tube lengths, the different method of forming tone holes can also play a role in how your ear perceives the sound of a flute. But some people might hear a bigger difference between drawn and soldered tone holes than others.

Testing Flutes

The Laurel/Yanny debate is also proof that having a friend listen while you test out a new flute can be important. The ears of a good friend or colleague can hear things you may not.

The same flute will sound different to the audience than to the player. A trusted friend can play the flute for you so you can listen. If you must go play testing alone, then a recording device can simulate the experience of having another person there.

While I believe you should pick the flute that you like best, listening and not just playing flutes can help you make your decision.

Why do I hear …?

The main reason people hear Laurel or Yanny has to do with pitch frequencies. If your ears pick out the higher frequencies, you are more likely to hear “Yanny.” For those of us that hear more of the lower frequencies, “Laurel” is the obvious choice.

If you major in music, you have to take two years of ear training. While I don’t know about other students, I was taught to listen for the bass line.

The bass line is the fundamental part of any piece of music, so that is what my ear gravitates toward. As a flutist, of course and can also hear higher frequencies. That is why I understand how some people might hear “Yanny.”

The Oral Cavity

Another reason why Laurel and Yanny can be easily mistaken is that the shape and size of your oral cavity is almost the same for both words.

La and Ya are very similar; r- and n- are also similar. The sounds el and ee are also very similar.

The only part of the mouth that changes is the tongue along with slight change of the lips. Try saying “Laurel” and “Yanny” and pay attention to how your mouth feels with both words.

Almost identical, right? The slightest change in your mouth can result in larger changes outside of the mouth.

So flutists, be sure to remember that when practicing long tones and working on intonation.


Which word do you hear? Is there anything else flutists can learn from this phenomenon? Leave your response in the comments!


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