What are Binaural Beats?

Updated: Jan 24, 2019

You may have heard about binaural beats and their promise to bring you to a meditative state quickly and without the need for years of practice. I have tested many over the years and although I have found them relaxing and entirely conducive to meditation, I was never convinced about their efficacy for brain 'entrainment' or the medical benefits. This is until I read a meta-analysis published in Psychological Research in August 2018 looking at the 'Efficacy of Binaural Beats in Cognition, Anxiety and Pain Perception.', showing this meta-analysis of 22 studies showed modest effects in all three areas. In cognitive tasks, binaural beats seamed to improve performance if used prior to performing tasks.

This article looks at the history and science of binaural beats in meditation.

Ancient cultures have long used beats, especially drumbeats in their traditions and rituals for thousands of years. The consistent beat inducing trance like states that have been scientifically observed and verified. Indeed, in almost every ancient culture that has been studied, repetitive beats have played an important role in perceived wellbeing and prosperity.

Were these ancient cultures aware of these effects on consciousness or other healing or spiritual benefit?

The modes of action of binaural beats were first described by the Prussian physicist and meteorologist, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove in 1839 but it wouldn’t be until over a hundred years later that this sound technology would reach mainstream attention.

It in 1973, biophysicist Dr. Gerald Oster published a paper called ‘Auditory Beats in the Brain’ in Scientific American and the public and commercial interest in this technology was ignited. Oster suggested that beat frequencies could bring about hormone-induced physiological changes.

In 1990, the scientist Melinda Maxfield published research on the drumbeats used during the rituals of ancient cultures. She found a consistency in the frequency of the beats used, typically beating at around 4.5 beats per second (beats per second will be referred to as Hertz or Hz later in this article). 4.5 Hz corresponds to a Theta brainwave at the low end of the brainwave spectrum.

Maxfield studied Tibetan monks, Native American shamans, Hindu yogi’s as well as other groups and found the use of either repetitive drumming or chanting. The Yogis in particular have been able to harness specific brainwave states for transcending normal states of consciousness as well as for concentration and focus as well as healing.

More recently the acclaimed neuroscientist Professor Andrew Newberg studied the effects of prayer and meditation on brain activity. He found that in deep meditation (or prayer) the brainwave activity in the parietal lobe fell to well below baseline levels. Professor Newberg is unique in that he has dual specialization in neuroscience and neuroimaging as well as a passion for the study of spiritual practice which earned him a unique title of neurotheologist. He has published numerous books and scientific papers on this topic (read 'The Neuroscientific Study of Spiritual Practices here.

How do binaural beats work?

Binaural translates to meaning two ears (like binocular for two eyes). With binaural audio two different frequency sounds or beats are sent to the left and right ears simultaneously. The brain then ‘calculates’ the mathematical difference and ‘perceives’ a third tone. This is the binaural frequency (see figure 1).

Figure 1.

In this example a 180Hz signal is sent to the right ear and a 184.5Hz signal is sent to the left ear. The resultant binaural frequency is 4.5Hz which is in the alpha wave zone. With binaural beats, it is imperative that both ears receive the signals simultaneously and without background acoustic distortion therefore headphone have to be used for this neural process to occur.

Next is the part that doesn’t have a huge amount of scientific support as yet.

If the brain perceives this frequency sound will its own brainwaves ‘synchronise’ to the audio – so called entrainment. This has not been widely studied largely due to the lack of interest or funding of meditation research and until recently the lack of a commercially available inexpensive and user-friendly methods to measure brainwave function such as electroencephalography (EEG). The latter is addressed by the increasing prevalence of portable EEG machines such as muse.

The next question that needs to be addressed is as follows:

We know that the brainwaves of experienced meditators vary significantly to the general population with much higher levels of gamma waves seen at rest and significantly higher levels of theta waves seen during deep meditation.

The use of binaural beats in many therapeutic areas have been studied and as mentioned earlier incorporated into a meta-analysis of the literature. The main areas that have interested researchers in the past as well as the more widespread research ongoing is grouped into broad categories in figure 2. This is based on the analysis of brainwaves of hundreds of individuals and is reproducible data. You can see therefore that if you want to aid sleep, target the delta waves, help with learning, it’s the alpha waves and if you want to improve your meditation, you have to go got theta, or so the theory goes.

Figure 2.

Binaural beats are usually sold embedded in meditation music or ambient noises such as rain, wind etc. however you can hear pure binaural beats (however, would this be akin to water torture?).

The main selling point of binaural beats is they provide an alternative to the years of discipline and practice required with conventional meditation. However much of the structural brain changes that are seen with conventional meditation take time (even though it can be as short as six weeks for structural changes to be seen in the grey matter on MRI after commencing a daily practice of mindfulness meditation). It seems extremely unlikely that binaural beats mediation would be able to provide the same degree of neuroplasticity. This, however, is an assumption and like much in this area, deserves further research.

For the time being, binaural beats are a useful adjunct to meditation and for an increasing number of mainly young individuals are being used as the sole method of meditation. Research is ongoing at many major institutions such as Harvard, the Johns Hopkins and the University of California campuses and major developments are taking place in wearable EEG technology and biofeedback. Beats have been around for thousands of years and are unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Article by Vikas Pandey

For binaural beats and other meditation audio click here.


1. Efficacy of binaural auditory beats in cognition, anxiety, and pain perception: a meta-analysis. Garcia-Argibay M, Santed MA, Reales JM. Psychological Research. 2018 Aug 2. doi: 10.1007/s00426-018-1066-8.

2. Auditory beats in the brain. Oster G. Scientific American. 1973 Oct; 229(4):94-102.

3. Effects of rhythmic drumming on EEG and subjective experience. Maxfield M. PhD Thesis. Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Stanford. 1990.

4. The neuroscientific study of spiritual practice. Newberg AB. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014 Aug ; 18(5): 215

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