I remember reading about binaural beats in college in 2011. I was having a lot of anxiety about school and life and had entered a bad cycle of insomnia. I would lie there and stare at the backs of my eyelids waiting for sleep to arrive, like lifting weights with chains adding incremental resistance. Every minute that passed without sleep seemed to compound the difficulty of reaching that desired state. Sleeplessness made it more difficult to face my stresses and the growing stress made it harder to sleep.
So I turned, like many sleepless people at 3 am, to the shared wisdom of the web. And deep in the labyrinthine internet tunnels of at-home solutions and cure-alls, I stumbled across binaural beats. Even a decade ago, there was a vast pool of free videos and audio across the Internet making it easy to dive in, ears-first.
Before I get too far, check out our video showing how you can create binaural beats with singing bowls:
Until my binaural discovery in 2011, I'd never meditated intentionally. So I wasn’t aware at the time that I was doing exactly that, laying there flat on my back, focusing on the oscillating tones. It allowed me to shut out external static, to become focused and present in the moment, mindful and calm. Just that little bit of practice opened the door for me. I quickly noticed my body releasing tension and my breathing slowed. I was so relaxed that I meditated straight into a deep sleep and started lucid dreaming (also a first for me).
Since then, I’ve been turned on to other types of meditation that have helped me with sleeplessness and stress. As a musician, and now as someone who works day-to-day in the world of gongs and singing bowls, I like to think back on this early discovery in the context of my life now. Both music and sound meditation play with and expand on the basic premise of binaural beats.
What are binaural beats? They don’t involve “beats” in the sense of percussive rhythm, like drums. A binaural beat is a sonic phenomenon that is created when two sine waves (single tones) of slightly different frequencies are played together, one in the left ear and the other in the right.
In addition to the two tones being played, the listener will hear an auditory illusion of a third tone, the difference between them. For example, if you play a 260 Hz tone in the left ear and a 270 Hz tone in the right ear, the third, perceived tone will be 10 Hz. To work, the difference between them has to be below 40 Hz and both frequencies have to be below 1500 Hz.
Here is a gif showing two sine waves separately and the sum of them below to help visualize the phenomenon. Note that the peaks and troughs alternate between amplifying and interfering with each other:
This phenomenon is one way that musicians are able to tune their instruments by ear. When tuning a string to the orchestra or the rest of the band, the player can hear this “interference pattern” or binaural beat caused by slight deviations from the desired pitch and they adjust their instrument accordingly.
Why do binaural beats work? The science is still out on this. There need to be more studies done to get to the bottom of it. Some believe that the mind becomes entrained or "tuned" to the illusory 3rd frequency, putting the brain into specific brainwave states associated with different states of consciousness. Other studies suggest the benefits come from something more simple: the act itself, of focusing the attention on the 2+1 tones and the alternating consonance and dissonance.
And that's the essence of what attracts people to music and sound healing: the play between consonance and dissonance, complexity and simplicity, the dynamics between compacted silence and expanding volume. Regardless of the mechanism behind these benefits, we say let the binaural beats play on! As long as you're not listening so loud that you damage your hearing, we encourage you to explore binaural beats.
If you’re looking for clean, simple, consistent binaural beats, the Internet is a vast universe full of them. Video and music streaming services alike offer playlists full of them to astral-taxi you to your desired destination.
Some playlists feature music added over the top of the binaural beats, while others are more straightforward. I prefer the more straightforward route, but you can find what works for you. Here's a Binaural Beats playlist I use on Spotify:
If you want to create your own binaural beats, the phenomenon can be recreated with physical instruments (see our video at the top of the page). The key is using an instrument with a singular, clean tone. And you’ll need two of them. Singing bowls, bells, chimes, and tuning forks are great because they create something closer to a sine wave than something like a gong, which creates a wash of many frequencies.
Note: Unless you’re using a synthesizer or a tone generator to create perfect tones, there will always be a small cluster of frequencies no matter what instrument you use.
The binaural beat phenomenon isn't just for sound therapists. Musicians like Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi have also used this phenomenon in their compositions, exploring the beats and oscillations caused by microtonal interference:
Check out some of our tuning forks, which are used to create the binaural phenomenon:
We're talking about the history of tuning standards in music and sound therapy. 432 Hz and 440 Hz are the most well-known tuning standards for A4, but are there others? How did they come about? Is 432 Hz superior? Is 440 Hz bad? What frequency standard should you use for optimal healing? Let's talk about it!