We humans have a range of different brain wave states and speeds, each relating to a different state of consciousness, be it waking, sleeping, or somewhere in between. Binaural beats are a phenomenon whereby we can voluntarily create different brain waves using external sound sources, thereby inducing the associated mental state.
First, let's take a look at the different states of consciousness which we most commonly experience.
Beta wave state - 12 to 30 cycles per second / Hz. This is our normal waking state. We're in a beta state when we're going about our daily business, often with our minds darting rapidly around the place, planning, analyzing, ruminating, and worrying. We are alert but not necessarily focused and may feel stressed.
Alpha wave state – 8 to 12 cycles per second (Hz). This is a state of relaxed awareness – you might have heard it referred to as being 'in flow'. We are captivated by whatever we're doing, our attention is focused, stress is reduced and we feel at ease. Our mindset is positive – we are present, effortlessly absorbed in our activity and environment, and our ability to learn is enhanced.
Theta wave state – 4 to 8 cycles per second / Hz. This is a state of deep relaxation typical of REM sleep. This state can be consciously experienced when we are meditating deeply and thought activity is suspended. Creativity and inspiration are greatly enhanced here.
Delta wave state – 0.5 to 4 cycles per second / Hz. This is the brain wave state of a deep sleep, where the pain is relieved and our bodies do their best self-healing and repair work. Although normally a sleeping state, delta waves can be consciously experienced via certain deep meditation practices such as Yoga Nidra, which allow us to access our subconscious mind. Stress hormones such as cortisol drop to very low levels in this state, and DHEA production is increased. (DHEA is a naturally occurring chemical that converts to testosterone in men and estrogen in women, and which declines from the age of 30. Low levels have been linked to many of the potential effects of aging such as weight gain, loss of libido, reduced bone and muscle mass, and cognitive decline.)
With stress and anxiety so prevalent in modern western society generally - and especially now - we can see that we spend the majority of our time in the beta state. The other states are accessible through meditation, but it does take practice. As a longtime meditator (I am both a monitor engineer and a yoga therapist) I can say that it is truly worth the effort – but wouldn't it also be nice if we could access these deeper, slower states more readily, any time?
Excitingly, we can, and that's where the binaural beats phenomenon comes in.
When a tone of one frequency is played to our left ear, and another tone up to 30 Hz higher or lower is played to the right ear, our brains create a 'phantom wave' of the difference. The brain then joins in at the new frequency and produces brainwaves at the same rate of Hertz (Hz), so becoming 'entrained' to that frequency.
a) Left ear 200 Hz + Right ear 210 Hz = Phantom wave produced at 10 Hz
b) Left ear 150 Hz + Right ear 156 Hz = Phantom wave produced at 6 Hz
c) Left ear 300 Hz + Right ear 302 Hz = Phantom wave produced at 2 Hz
This is known as the 'Frequency Following Response', and it's a naturally occurring phenomenon that happens in the human brain.
The word binaural means 'having or relating to two ears'.
The phantom waves created are known as binaural beats, and as you can see from the above, example a) corresponds to our alpha brain waves, b) to theta waves, and c) to delta waves. We can utilize this phenomenon to create our own relaxed states by simply playing the mathematically corresponding tones through stereo headphones!
But we can't hear as low as 2 Hz, so how can this be? Remember, we're not 'hearing' the beat or phantom wave through our ears – our brains are creating it inside themselves, as a kind of auditory illusion.
It's critical that we do this with headphones – it won't work with speakers as the signal to each ear needs to be isolated in order to make our brains perceive the different tones. For optimal results, we need to listen for at least ten minutes, and in a meta-analysis of 22 research studies, 'time under exposure contributed significantly to the model indicating that longer periods are advisable to ensure maximum effectiveness.'
Now admittedly, listening to a 300 Hz tone and its close friend for long periods doesn't sound like my idea of fun. But happily, this phenomenon still works within a 'carrier' soundtrack of relaxing music, which is much more enjoyable to hear.
As I write, I'm listening to an alpha wave binaural beats soundtrack, which is helping me to be in the state of relaxed attentiveness known as 'flow' whilst I work. I also use a theta track to stimulate my creativity and inspiration (perfect for an afternoon lie-down when I'm searching for an answer to a problem) and a delta track to induce a state of deep healing (a perfect antidote to stress and an incredible tool for anyone suffering insomnia). For obvious reasons, it's important to avoid using binaural beats while undertaking tasks that require full alertness such as driving.
There are many tracks available on YouTube, some of which I suspect may be a scam; but with others, I could feel the effect straight away. There does seem to be a correspondence between the number of subscribers and positive reviews, and the efficacy of different providers.
Alpha – I'll be using this one for a state of relaxed alertness right before I mix my next gig.
Theta – for creative inspiration.
Delta – for deep sleep and restorative healing – I found this one extremely powerful.
Obviously, without getting hooked up to an EEG machine I can't prove my experiences to you, so don't just take this audiophile hippy's word for it – there have been plentiful studies done on the effects of binaural beats therapy and the results are compelling.
A 2018 meta-study concluded that '(this research) adds to the growing evidence that binaural-beat exposure is an effective way to affect cognition over and above reducing anxiety levels and the perception of pain without prior training.'
And a 2017 study into the effects of a 250 Hz / 256 Hz tone stated that:
"The brain responses to the 6 Hz binaural beat revealed in this study showed that theta activity was enhanced similar to that observed in a meditative state within just 10 min of exposure. Therefore, a 6 Hz binaural beat on a 250 Hz carrier tone could be utilized as a stimulus for inducing a meditative state, as meditation has several advantages, such as stress reduction. However, achieving such effects via meditation requires a deep meditative state that often takes a long period of time. With this binaural beat, a meditative state can be induced in just 10 minutes and may be more feasibly implemented in modern lifestyles."
If you'd like to experiment with this powerful phenomenon for yourself, all you need is a pair of headphones, an internet connection, and 10 to 15 minutes. As both a yoga therapist and sound engineer with a keen interest in psychoacoustics, I'm sold – I'll be using this technique with my yoga therapy clients, and when we get back on the road I'll certainly be suggesting it to the musicians and artists who often seek my advice on relaxation.
As for me – I'll still be accessing the power of my own subconscious via my beloved meditation, as well as using these binaural beats tracks as a wonderful addition to my life. I'm very much looking forward to getting on a flight to my next tour and drowning out the noise by putting myself in that deep delta sleep state. Try it for yourself – turn on, tune in, and bliss out!
About The Author
Becky Pell is a monitor engineer with 25 years' experience in the live music industry. Originally from the U.K., Becky now lives in Queensland, Australia. Her mixing credits include Westlife, A-ha, Anastacia, Take That, Il Divo, The War of the Worlds, Muse, Kylie Minogue, Bill Wyman, James Brown, Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Brightman, and Natalie Imbruglia. She has regularly been in charge of monitors on the main stage at the world's largest festival, Glastonbury, and writes a column for Live Sound International.
Becky is also a qualified Yoga Therapist and Holistic Life Coach and between tours she runs yoga retreats in beautiful locations around the world. She is currently teaching yoga and seeing clients online, and her first book Yoga Journey - a Contemporary Guide to a Timeless Tradition is due for publication later this year.
Visit Becky Pell's website at www.RocknRollYogi.com