sound

An Aural Illusion for Teaching Frequency and Pitch of Sound

A recent trending phenomenon on the internet is the audio recording of a word, which is interpreted different by two groups of people – those who hear it as “Laurel” vs those who hear “Yanny”.

To find out which camp you are on, right-click to download this mp3 file and or listen by clicking the “play” button below!

Personally, I hear it as “Laurel” and it has got to do with the fact that the audible frequencies of my ears are pretty limited, thanks in part to my age. For an explanation, watch this video:

Now that you have found out why this recording could potentially “divide a nation”, it is worth considering it as part of an activity to pique students’ interest and activate learning. Students can be prompted to rely on their prior knowledge and experience to generate questions using a thinking routine such as “Claim-Support-Question“.

As an activity to promote thinking and discussion, students can be asked to test if the claim made by this video is true. They can conduct experiments to test their own audible frequencies using audio recording and generating software such as Audacity¬†which is open source and easy to use. With the whole class participating, there should be enough data to figure out if there is a pattern between the frequencies that the “Yanny” camp can hear that the “Laurel” camp can’t and vice versa.

Generating Tones in Audacity
Select a frequency to test if students can hear it, say 10000 Hz.

Alternatively, you can choose to change the pitch of the recording using the “Change Pitch” effect of the Audacity software. Through this activity, students can directly observe how a change in frequency can lead to a change in pitch.

Changing pitch with Audacity
Change the pitch by 30% to hear Yanny

Changing the pitch down by 30% if you are a “Laurel” hearer who wants to listen to what “Yanny” sounds like. Raise the pitch by 30% if you are young enough to hear “Yanny”. If that does not work, play around with other values of pitch change.

Finally, if there is sufficient time that can be devoted to this topic, students can be asked to make a presentation on the relationship between frequency and pitch, and demonstrate that they can apply what they have learnt to other real-life applications such as ultrasound and music.

Pressure Variation in Stationary Sound Waves

For sound waves, we learnt that the compressions (position of maximum pressure) and rarefactions (minimum pressure) occur at the equilibrium position of the displacement of particles. This suggests that the pressure would vary the most in a stationary wave at the nodes of displacement. Right in the middle between two adjacent displacement nodes is the displacement antinode and we should expect the pressure variation to be the minimum there.

A displacement node is a pressure antinode.
A displacement antinode is a pressure node.

The standing waves associated with resonance in air columns can, therefore, be visualized in terms of the pressure variations in the column. Daniel A. Russell from The Pennsylvania State University made a wonderful animation showing how the variation of pressure occurs along an air column. (Link here)

Animations courtesy of Dr. Dan Russell, Grad. Prog. Acoustics, Penn State.

It is a common misconception, even among physics teachers, that if a microphone is moved along the air column, it will pick up the loudest sounds at the displacement antinodes. However, according to Young & Geller (2007), College Physics 8th Edition, Pearson Education Inc. (pg 385), microphones and similar devices usually sense pressure variations and not displacements. In other words, the position within a stationary sound wave at which the loudest sound is picked up is at the displacement nodes which are the pressure antinodes.

Check out my own animation for a progressive longitudinal wave.