Spend even a small amount of time looking into music designed to help you study, concentrate or relax, and chances are before long you’ll run into the topic of binaural beats.
YouTube is full of mystical looking videos offering binaural beats to help you to achieve certain goals.
They promise amazing, extraordinary results. They claim to essentially program the brain, and increase its activity to help you meditate, relax, sleep better, or study more effectively – whenever you want to.
But what’s the truth? Are they the real deal or just a strangely popular pseudo-science?
What is a binaural beat
Firstly, we need to understand what binaural beats actually are.
Essentially they are an audio illusion, which happens when two tones, which have slightly different frequencies are played, with one panned hard to the left, and the other panned hard to the right. This is called dichotic listening.
What this means is that each ear is listening to a slightly different version of the same tone, with no overlap between the two. One ear is just listening to an ever so slightly higher pitched version of the tone.
The audio from the two tones do not overlap at all – and this is crucial to how they work. Take one earphone out and you’ll hear just Tone A in your left ear, take the other earphone out and you’ll hear only Tone B – but when they are played together, a strange effect occurs. Take a listen below:
The brain seems to mix them together, and a third tone is heard, which gently oscillates between the two tones. The brain is creating this weird tone – try taking one earphone out again – the odd third tone instantly disappears.
This is a little like an optical illusion, and is undoubtedly an interesting and unusual effect, but why does any of it matter?
How binaural beats can (potentially) be used
Let’s get into the science of it.
The brain does generate measurable frequency waves when it is active.
When you fall into the deepest stage of sleep, for example, scientists can measure delta waves occurring naturally in the brain. These delta waves have a frequency between 1Hz and 4 Hz.
So one example of where binaural beats is said to be effective is to help the brain to generate these delta waves, on command. If the oscillation between two tones is between 1 and 4 Hz – in theory, the brain is essentially having delta waves piped in.
The brain generates various different types of waves, with different frequencies, and studies have associated these waves with different states – be it relaxed or alert.
The idea of binaural beats is that the brain can then be externally tuned into these various states.
Binaural beats, are designed to match the various naturally occurring and scientifically measurable waves that occur in the brain. For example, a 2005 study by Hasselmo, suggested that theta waves (between 4–7 Hz) are associated with learning and functions of memory.
For this reason, binaural beats which create a wave between 4–7 Hz are very popular.
By associating different brain waves with different functions, different binaural beats have been created to focus on the related areas.
So it’s clear that there is certainly some science behind binaural beats, and instinctively it feels as though there is some logic to the idea.
However, it’s here where things become a bit more grey, science-wise.
Some studies have found a link, but these often call for further research. Other studies have found minimal or no effect. The studies have often been limited in size and scale.
It’s also worth taking account of the Placebo effect, which essentially suggests that if we are expecting an effect to take place, we will be more likely to perceive it.
In this case, if someone 100% believes that binaural beats are scientifically valid way of improving focus while studying, they are likely to see that effect, in the same way that the body responds positively to sugar pills, if it genuinely believes they contain medicine.
The honest truth is it’s hard to know whether binaural beats are capable of influencing the brain in the ways that many claim they do.
While their effects and the scientific evidence supporting them is undoubtedly in many cases greatly and cynically exaggerated, it’s also clear that we don’t fully understand how the brain operates – we simply don’t have enough evidence either way to say whether they are a real phenomenon or not.
Here at GBM Music, we approach binaural beats with an open mind.
As a sceptical organisation, our take is that often when things sound too good to be true, they often are.
So we begin from the that simply listening to these oscillating tones and this unusual effect creates a calming experience, which can be relaxing and trance inducing. Or can help to block out distractions while studying.
We are also, however, unable to rule out that they may be capable of having a deeper influence on the brain. Music can do amazing things, and these beats do match the scientifically studied frequencies that naturally occur in the brain, and can be associated with certain activities and mental states.
It’s clear that there is a lot that we don’t understand about this area, and it’s best to beware of people claiming scientific certainty either for or against.
Anecdotally, we here from many listeners who swear by them – this is not scientific evidence, however, of course.
So we leave it to you to make the call – what do you think, try them and let us know your experience.
You can try our Sleep Binaural Beat here.