Can Listening to Binaural Beats Make You Feel Better?

Happy young girl with headphonesBinaural beat technology (BBT) was discovered in the early 1800s and first described in the popular literature in the early 1970s. In the last four decades, binaural beat audio programs have been touted as tools for reducing stress, improving sleep, enhancing concentration, and even fostering altered states of consciousness. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, BBT audiotapes were primarily found in more esoteric venues, such as New Age bookstores, health food emporia, and retreat centers dedicated to consciousness exploration. One such center, the Monroe Institute in Virginia, is well known for their use of Hemi-Sync recordings, which feature BBT.

Today, BBT has become more commonplace, as one can download MP3s and smartphone applications in a matter of moments. Although the prevalence and popularity of such products has waxed and waned, several studies examining the potential usefulness off BBT have been conducted with a variety of populations.

What is BBT?
The term “binaural beat” refers to the brain’s tendency to hear the difference between two similar tones that are played in opposite ears as one new tone.  Our ears hear tones in terms of hertz (Hz), or cycles (the number of times a wave repeats itself) per second. Beats played at frequencies that are characteristic of brain wave frequencies are both audible and thought to facilitate alterations in our predominant brain-wave state.

Types of Brain Waves and Their Associated States
At any given time, our predominant brain wave may be in the frequency associated with deep sleep or deep trance (delta; 1-4 Hz), meditation (theta; 4-8 Hz), relaxed awareness or daydreaming, (alpha; 8-12 Hz), a state of relaxed focus (low-beta, or sensorimotor rhythm [SMR]; 12-15 Hz), alert mental activity/concentration (mid-beta; ~15-18 Hz), anxiety (high-beta; >18 Hz), or high-level information processing (gamma; >30 Hz). Gamma brain-wave states appear to be the least well researched. There is no “best” state to be in; however, at different times we will understandably want to be able to shift into one that is appropriate to the task at hand, whether sleeping, working on a project, or relaxing.

What Type of BBT for Which Conditions?
It has been hypothesized that a number of conditions, including chronic stress, chronic and postoperative pain, migraines and other headaches, problems with attention/concentration or learning, and insomnia, to name a few, reflect an imbalance or irregularity in brain-wave states. The deliberate use of BBT to change the predominant brain-wave state is referred to as brain-wave entrainment (BWE). BWE is not limited to BBT, but discussion of other methods is outside the scope of this article. However, a 2008 review of the BWE literature found that delta stimulation was associated with improvement in migraines and other headaches and reduction in short-term stress. A single session of alpha stimulation was associated with stress reduction in some settings, but not for those undergoing root canal. Alpha stimulation was also linked to pain relief. Beta improved attention, reduced short-term stress, alleviated headaches, reduced behavioral problems, and improved performance on measures of overall intelligence. An alpha-beta protocol improved verbal skills performance and attention, and a beta-gamma protocol showed improved arithmetic skills in children who had learning disabilities or attention-deficit hyperactivity. Most of these studies examined photic stimulation (presented via flashing lights) or combined photic and BBT entrainment rather than BBT alone. Thus, it is difficult to draw a definitive conclusion about the specific utility of BBT from this review.

BBT as a Potential Tool for Reducing Anxiety and Pain
The results of a small pilot study published in 2007 found that listening to an hour-long program emphasizing delta BBT for 60 days was associated with a decrease in self-reported trait anxiety and an increase in quality of life among eight healthy adults. The level of dopamine (an excitatory neurotransmitter) was also decreased significantly and may be related to the decrease in trait anxiety scores. Interestingly, the team assessed changes in the level of growth hormone because the BBT’s producer claimed that listening would increase these levels. Growth hormone decreases with age, and thus, an increase would be considered a potentially beneficial outcome; yet, listening to this BBT program was associated with a significant decrease in growth hormone. Both the reasons for this result and it’s implications are unclear.

Perhaps two of the more intriguing studies about BBT were the following trials with patients undergoing surgery. The first is a 2005 double-blind, randomized controlled trial in which 108 patients undergoing general anesthesia for elective surgeries received either a BBT plus music audio, the same music without BBT, or no intervention other than standard care for a 30-minute period prior to their operations. The BBT audio featured a progressively slowing beat that ended with 10 minutes of delta. No adverse events were noted, and although initial state anxiety scores were higher in the BBT group (prior to the intervention), the most significant decrease in anxiety was also in the BBT group—even after adjusting for the fact that participants in this group on average had higher initial anxiety. Listening to music alone was also associated with a significant decrease in anxiety, but this decrease was of a lesser magnitude than that of the BBT group. This study showed that an inexpensive, one-time intervention of short duration was beneficial despite the stress characteristic of undergoing surgery.

The other study was a randomized controlled trial of 60 patients about to have surgery with general anesthesia. Twenty patients were assigned to each of three conditions: a Hemi-Sync BBT program, listening to the music of their choosing, or listening to a blank audiocassette for 30 minutes prior to surgery. None of the participants was offered any sedative premedication. Stereo headsets from all groups of participants were removed before the patients entered the operating room but were replaced and the respective audio programs restarted after the induction of anesthesia. Headsets were discontinued at the conclusion of surgery. The researchers found that using the Hemi-Sync programs resulted in significantly less intraoperative use of fentanyl (a very potent, synthetic opiate pain medication), lower self-reported pain scores several hours after the surgery, and being discharged from the hospital sooner. Unfortunately, the specific frequency of BBT was not described in this article.

Anecdotally, several months ago I went for my first-ever root canal and noticed considerable anxiety at the thought of having a very sensitive tooth drilled (even with anesthetic). On the way to the endodontist’s office, I listened to both a guided imagery program designed specifically for medical procedures in which one must remain awake (available via HealthJourneys.com) and also to a free delta BBT program (Napuru) I’d downloaded for my iPhone. The delta tones were played against a backdrop of ocean waves. My subjective experience was that the BBT and imagery, combined with mindfulness practice before and during the root canal, reduced my anxiety significantly and enabled me to get through what seemed like an eternity of loud drilling. I cannot say what the most “active” ingredient in this integrative approach was; however, the point is that this nondrug, inexpensive, easy-to-use adjunct was effective for me.

BBT has been around for decades and is now readily and inexpensively available. There are some data to suggest that it may be helpful for relieving anxiety in general and in the context of a stressful event. There is also some evidence that BBT or other methods of brainwave entrainment may help with pain, concentration, headaches, and other issues, and serious risks or side effects have not been reported. The current research does not definitively answer the question of whether there would be a dose-response effect or a benefit from listening to BBT more regularly versus listening once; however, this seems plausible. More research needs to be done to better elucidate whether BBT could be used as an independent therapeutic tool, however. Additionally, assuming BBT is effective, one should not drive or perform tasks requiring sharp focus when listening to delta, theta, or alpha tones, as these may induce a very relaxed state.

For More Information:

  1. Dabu-Bondoc, S., Vadivelu, N., Benson, J., Perret, D.,  Kain, Z. N.  (2010). Hemispheric Synchronized sounds and perioperative analgesic requirements. Anethesia & Analgesia, 110(1), 208-210.
  2. Huang, T. L., Charyton, C. (2008). A comprehensive review of the psychological effects of brainwave entrainment. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 14(5), 38-50.
  3. Padmanabhan, R., Hildreth, A. J., Laws, D. (2005). A prospective, randomised, controlled study examining binaural beat audio and pre-operative anxiety in patients undergoing general anesthesia for day case surgery. Anesthesia, 60, 874-877.
  4. Wahbeh, H., Calabrese, C., Zwickey, H. (2007). Binaural beat technology in humans: A pilot study to assess psychologic and physiologic effects. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(1), 25-32.

Related articles:
6 CAM Tools for Achieving Better Health, Emotional Balance, and Contentment
Biofeedback for Treatment of Migraines and Stress
10 Complementary Therapies That Can Help Children

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  • 25 comments
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  • Eleanor

    Eleanor

    July 24th, 2012 at 3:42 PM

    This is something so interesting. . . never heard of it before but will certainly do some looking into now

  • Steve

    Steve

    July 24th, 2012 at 5:07 PM

    If this is a good stress and anxiety reliever, then maybe this will catch on. But I do have a little nagging fear that there are some providers and patients who will wind up thinking that this sort of treatment is a little too far out in left field and may not be willing to give something different like this a chance. The other thing is that I wonder how something that is a little more experimental will be viewed by insurance companies who could be footing the bill. It could be a treatment plan that is super beneficiasl but if a patient can’t get it covered by their medical insurance then there is a great likelihood that they will pursue some form of treatment that is deemed more traditional even if it doesn’t offer as many long term benefits to them.

  • Josh

    Josh

    July 25th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    Maybe I just don’t understand this, but wow, I really don’t understand how this concept of stress relief works at all

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    July 25th, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    @Steve: I understand where yo are coming from re: acceptance of CAM treatments. Personally, I see BBT as something that can complement an existing treatment (for those who are already in therapy), and as a potential stand-alone tool to try for those whose symptoms are not severe enough to interfere with day-to-day functioning. People whose symptoms are more bothersome or severe should not use BBT in lieu of therapy. With regard to insurance reimbursement, I am not aware of any programs that reimburse for BBT programs, but the good news is that they range from being free apps to ones that are a few dollars (or about $10-15 for CDs and MP3s).

  • Christine

    Christine

    August 27th, 2013 at 7:24 AM

    It depends on the listener. If they feel comfortable by listening on it. That’s good. Some people won’t be comfortable with listening Binaural Beat.

  • QuantumsoundTherapy

    QuantumsoundTherapy

    March 4th, 2014 at 5:35 AM

    Thanks, you shared a wonderful information about BBT and its types and get more knowlegible about Theta Binaural Sound Therapy which removes fear and stress.

  • Hypnotic Waves

    Hypnotic Waves

    June 3rd, 2014 at 6:27 PM

    I have to swear by the effects of binaural beats. I use them, I have had success with them. Yes they can change your mood. They change your brain waves and make achieving peak states possible. I really like that you have linked to actual research studies. Great article. Keep up good work.

  • Oscar

    Oscar

    November 29th, 2017 at 6:02 AM

    I won a proposed study on “The effects of binaural beats on patients with schizophrenia.” This was back in 2015.
    I also, gained university recognition and won best overall study proposal. I think I was onto something! I swear by it for concentration and treating migraines.

  • Michael A.

    Michael A.

    April 19th, 2018 at 10:16 PM

    I’d like to ask Oscar if I can read his paper. I’m putting together a concept paper for a master’s thesis, likely to be about BBT.

  • Jason S

    Jason S

    July 17th, 2014 at 11:36 PM

    Geez, it’s good to see actual studies on binaural beats. This only confirms for me the power that I’ve experienced with them.

    I use them for meditation ALL the time. They have also helped me during times of acute anxiety. Honestly, I’ve been having much success with binaural beats and isochronic tones.

    It may sound far fetched, but you can only try yourself.

    Check this video on migraine and pain relief – and look at the comments…

    youtube.com/watch?v=28J1PMlY8fI

    Binaural beats are amazing – as are isochronic tones.

    Thanks for your article – and the studies to back them all up! Many blessings, Jason.

  • Mike H

    Mike H

    July 23rd, 2014 at 12:05 AM

    This is a great article about binaural beats! Very informative!

  • Don Carter, MSW, LCSW

    Don Carter, MSW, LCSW

    December 8th, 2014 at 12:28 PM

    Great post on the basics of brainwave meditations. More and more research is bearing out the fact that meditation relieves stress, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It is a wonder that this has not yet become the first line of treatment in many cases. Thanks for the post!

  • Lumu

    Lumu

    March 29th, 2015 at 3:37 PM

    I used this thing but seems am just cut off from the reality, seems I live in a dream world and gloating all the time. Suffering from confusion. Just don’t know if there is something I can do to come back to my normal me. Can BBT lead to permanent brain damage? Am really worried and confused.

  • Brian

    Brian

    May 10th, 2015 at 2:54 AM

    Hi Lumu

    I recently listened to binaural beats unknowingly as they were imbedded within a Paul McKenna hypnosis cd, at the time I was struggling with insomnia and one particular night I took 20mg Ambien sleeping pills, hours later after they had failed to send me off to sleep I decided to try the hypnosis cd, the sensations I felt were intense, waves of cool flooding around my skull.. Since then I’ve not felt like me, confusion being a big thing, whenever I try to construct serious thought and decision making or feeling stressed my skull begins to ache, not like a headache more like my head is being squeezed in a vice !!!

    I’m really scared that I’ve given myself permanent brain damage as my cognitive function feels compromised, this was only a week ago and I’m hoping and praying that I will be back to my normal self again soon!!!

    How are u feeling now? Are things getting better for u? I hope for both our sakes that what we are experiencing is only temporary and that our bodies will do what they do best and heal themselves !!

    Please get in touch !!!

    I hope you are feeling better !!!

  • sfakasgreek

    sfakasgreek

    May 10th, 2018 at 4:11 PM

    hi bro now all is good tell me.6 month i listen i have heard and have the same symptoms

  • sfakasgreek

    sfakasgreek

    May 10th, 2018 at 4:22 PM

    hi i have same symptoms with you,tell me bro now is all good?i i have heard 6 month brain wave binaural beats and now have problems

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    March 29th, 2015 at 5:42 PM

    Hi Lumu, I am not aware of any evidence of BBT being harmful. The feelings you are describing are concerning, however. BBT is not a substitute for an evaluation and treatment by a licensed mental health provider. I recommend that you seek treatment near you to help you understand what may be going on for you and how you can feel better. Sudden changes in cognitive function such as feeling confused and cut off from reality warrant immediate treatment.

    I will tell you what I would recommend to anyone: in addition to the above, if you feel concerned for your well being, or experience emotions or thoughts that feel like to much to handle, please do get help immediately by calling 911 or going to your nearest emergency room.

  • Lumu

    Lumu

    May 11th, 2015 at 5:09 AM

    Brian, am really sorry if you are having these symptoms too, i know how bad and disturbing it can be. My situation got from bad to worst as my friends started telling me they had the impression i was going crackers already. I had the feeling i was floating all the time and that i was just in a dream world. The stress pushed up my blood pressure to such a very bad level. I was adviced by friends to consult an ENT specialist, who prescribed me a drug called TANAKAN, i dont know if its available in pharmacies where u live, but u can just google it, its not a prescription drug. Since I started taking it, i feel my feet are on the ground again, though i still get very confused and lost especially when under pressure. This BBT thing, i can securely say is very dangerous… Good luck @Brian and i hope u find a solution to your problem

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    May 11th, 2015 at 8:33 AM

    Hi Brian and Lumu,

    Again, neither binaural beats nor hypnosis could cause “permanent brain damage” and should not compromise cognitive function. These therapies are considered safe for the majority of people.

    That said, if there is an underlying cognitive or psychiatric issue, it is not appropriate to self treat, and I would then recommend you not use binaural beats, hypnosis, or any CAM therapy that induces a very relaxed, daydreamy, or dissociative state. If you notice cognitive or emotional/psychiatric symptoms before or after using the above, you should absolutely consult your healthcare provider immediately. A good evaluation by your primary MD, and then a psychiatrist or neurologist can rule out or treat any brain-related issues. Then, these professionals, or a qualified licensed therapist, can help you determine what, if any, CAM therapies are right for you.

    I hope this is helpful. Be well.

  • Dakota

    Dakota

    July 12th, 2016 at 9:30 AM

    I have chronic migraines, most times pills don’t help me (prescription and over the counter) and sleep is the only relief (can’t feel the pain if I’m out cold). I’ve been having an on and off migraine since last week. After listening to a binuaral beats video on youtube my migraine started to ease up within 20 minutes. Finding out about binaural beats is the best thing that has happened to me in terms of my migraines. I’ve been having full blown migraines since I was seven, I’m now almost 23 and I keep saying to myself “why didn’t I learn about this sooner?!”

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    July 12th, 2016 at 11:37 AM

    Hi Dakota, thanks so much for sharing your experience. That’s terrific!

  • Yoga Nidra

    Yoga Nidra

    June 4th, 2017 at 2:22 PM

    Here is the video with complete binaural beats – 48 of them. Check it out: youtube.com/watch?v=HIumq6h4pvA

  • Tom C

    Tom C

    June 9th, 2017 at 8:53 PM

    Very informative tips thanks for sharing.Thanks, I appreciate your sharing this!

  • Tom

    Tom

    June 21st, 2017 at 2:03 AM

    This post is actually really inspiring for me, thank you!
    mindvalleyacademy.com/blog/mind/binaural-beats-study

  • Carol

    Carol

    July 31st, 2017 at 5:55 PM

    As a Social Worker and Yoga Instructor with over a decade of meditation experience I have to say that I personally find Binaural Beats meditation to be a wonderful compliment to therapy and recommend it to most of my clients, especially those who have trouble quieting their mind. It can be very beneficial to calm anxiety and even process old emotions from my experience. I’ve recently been working with the world’s first 3 Dimensional Binaural Beats meditation which is really the next level of this type of treatment. For a free sample check out: bit.ly/SynctuitionCC Wishing you all peace on your journey!

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