What Are Binaural Beats?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on April 30, 2023
3 min read

A binaural beat is an illusion created by the brain when you listen to two tones with slightly different frequencies at the same time.

Your brain interprets the two tones as a beat of its own. The two tones align with your brain waves to produce a beat with a different frequency. This frequency is the difference in hertz (Hz) between the frequencies of the two tones. 

For example, if you are listening to a 440 Hz tone with your left ear and a 444 Hz tone with your right ear, you would be hearing a 4 Hz tone.

When you listen to binaural beats, your brain activity matches the frequency set by the frequency of the beat. This is called the frequency-following effect. This means you can use binaural beats to entrain your mind to reach a certain mental state.

The superior olivary complex and binaural beats. Located in the brain stem, the superior olivary complex is the first part of the brain that processes sound input from both ears. The superior olivary complex synchronizes various activities of the many neurons in the brain. This complex responds when it hears two close frequencies and creates a binaural beat, which changes the brain waves. The synchronization of the neural activities across the brain is called entrainment.

Entrainment isn’t just related to binaural beats. It is a common part of brain function. According to some researchers, when you listen to certain binaural beats, they can increase the strength of certain brain waves. This can increase or hold back different brain functions that control thinking and feeling.

Neurons in your brain use electrical signals to create thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When neurons synchronize, this creates brain waves. Brain waves can be measured by a technique called electroencephalography (EEG). This technique involves electrodes put on the scalp to record electric signals. 

Brain waves can range from low frequency to high amplitude and high frequency to low amplitude. The brain waves create binaural beats. This leads to different mental states which affect the brain in different ways.

There are five different brain waves:

Delta: 1-4 Hz. Delta is the lowest frequency state, and it’s linked to:

  • Deep sleep
  • Healing and pain relief
  • Meditation
  • Anti-aging: cortisol reduction/DHEA increase
  • Access to the unconscious mind

Theta: 4-8 Hz. Theta binaural beats benefits include:

  • Meditation
  • Deep relaxation
  • Creativity

Alpha: 8-14 Hz. When you are in an alpha state of mind, your brain is focused and productive. Alpha brain waves help you to:

  • Relax and focus
  • Reduce Stress
  • Maintain positive thinking
  • Increase your learning capabilities
  • Easily engage in activities and the environment because you are in a state of flow

Beta: 14-30 Hz. Beta is a higher frequency brainwave and helps in:

  • Keeping your attention focused
  • Analytical thinking and solving problems
  • Stimulating energy and action
  • High-level cognition

Gamma: 30-100 Hz. With a higher frequency than beta, these brain waves help in:

  • Increased cognitive enhancement
  • Attention to detail, helping in memory recall
  • A different way of thinking, which is a sign of creativity

There is a lack of clinical research for binaural beats. The evidence for the frequency-following effect is conflicting and inconclusive. Talk to your doctor before trying to use binaural beats for any health reasons. 

Benefits of binaural beats include:

  • Increased creativity and cognitive enhancement
  • Reduced anxiety and improved mood
  • Helping you enter a meditative state
  • Improved sleeping habits
  • Helping to improve focus, attention, and memory retention

Depression. Some studies have linked binaural beats to increased feelings of depression. 

Some people who listened to binaural beats experienced short bursts of anxiety, anger, and confusion that lasted for a short time.

However, there is inconclusive research supporting binaural beat as a stand-alone medical treatment tool. Binaural beat therapy can’t be used in place of conventional therapy, but it could be used as a complementary strategy if discussed with a doctor. Research shows that binary beats are good for mental health as it’s linked to encouraging positive feelings.

As many binaural beats are freely available, the reactions to the beats vary from one individual to another. Individuals need to experiment with different binary beats to find ones that suit them. The effectiveness of binaural beats depends on the listener. Some people will find the beats effective. Others might find them irritating and unproductive.