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Three audio illusions popularised by the internet


Three audio illusions popularised by the internet

The web loves a debate, especially if it’s a binary one. When a question takes the form of ‘is it this or that?’, people really nail their colours to the mast and argue forcefully that they’re right. Examples could include whether to put the milk in tea before or after the water, whether smooth or crunchy peanut butter is better, and whether ‘scone’ rhymes with ‘gone’ or ‘bone’.

Of course, these are all pointless debates – the answers are clearly ‘after’, ‘crunchy’ and ‘gone’.

A phenomenon that easily predates the internet, but has been spurred on by it, is illusions. A particularly notable one was ‘The Dress’, which got people really worked up in 2015 as they debated its colours. A current viral soundbite, however, has reminded us that not all illusions are optical, and we can be just as confused by what we hear as by what we see, or just as convinced that we’re right and others are wrong.

1. Yanny or Laurel?

You’ve probably heard this one by now. It’s only been around for a week, but it’s got people in absolute hysterics.

The clip is taken from Vocabulary.com and is somebody saying the word ‘laurel’, but because the recording quality is poor and there is a split in frequency, some listeners hear the word ‘yanny’ instead.

I can hear a little of both, which probably means my ears are well tuned to a range of frequencies. Some analysts have said that older people, who are less able to hear high frequencies, are more likely to only be able to hear one or the other – more likely ‘laurel’.

Amusingly, Vocabulary.com has jumped on board with the trend, introducing an entry for the word ‘yanny’.

2. The Shepard tone

This is a very strange one. Have a listen to this clip:

I don’t suggest you sit through all 10 hours of it, but if you do, you’ll hear a haunting, disorientating tone that appears to be getting lower and lower in pitch. How is this possible?

It actually doesn’t – the Shepard tone is merely a trick involving octaves that you can read about in detail here. If you skip from one minute of the video to the next, you’ll notice the tone both ascending and descending in pitch

3. Skipping pylon

Sometimes, our brains can simply make sounds up. Try watching this video:

Do you hear a loud thump or boom every time the pylon lands on the ground? There isn’t one – it’s a silent clip – but it appears that a large number of people can hear a sound that isn’t there.

When something as tall and solid as a pylon is seen jumping up and down, and the camera shakes as it does so, it seems that our brains think it should be making a noise, so they create one for us. Some listeners have also speculated that the skipping is taking place at about the same rate as a normal human heartbeat, so some listeners are actually hearing their own hearts.

In these confusing times for the internet, these are very literally examples of how we shouldn’t believe everything we hear online.

John Murray

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