Binaural beat therapy is an emerging form of sound wave therapy. It makes use of the fact that the right and left ear each receive a slightly different frequency tone, yet the brain perceives these as a single tone.
Advocates of this type of therapy currently recommend it for the treatment of anxiety, stress, and related disorders. This self-help treatment is usually available in the form of audio recordings that a person listens to on stereo headphones.
However, research is inconclusive about the clinical benefits of binaural beat therapy, and a doctor does not oversee its delivery. Therefore, it is best not to replace traditional treatments for stress and anxiety with this type of intervention.
Binaural beat therapy is not part of standard care for any condition. Doctors consider this treatment to be semi-experimental.
In this article, we explain binaural beats and look at current research to assess their effectiveness. We also clarify how to use them.
According to a 2015 literature review, the tones should be at frequencies lower than 1,000 hertz (Hz) for the brain to detect the binaural beat. The binaural beat that a person perceives is the frequency difference between the waves entering the left and right ear.
For example, if the left ear registers a tone at 200 Hz and the right ear registers one at 210 Hz, the binaural beat is 10 Hz — the difference between the two frequencies.
The findings of a 2018 study suggest that listening to binaural beats for a recommended period can affect a person's subsequent behavior and sleep cycles.
The study authors explain that there are five different categories of frequency pattern:
- Delta pattern: Binaural beats in the delta pattern operate at a frequency of 0.5–4 Hz with links to a dreamless sleep. In the study, people who received a delta pattern frequency during sleep entered a deeper stage of sleep, according to electroencephalogram (EEG) brain scan results.
- Theta pattern: Practitioners set binaural beats in the theta pattern to a frequency of 4–7 Hz. Theta patterns contribute to improved meditation, creativity, and sleep in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase.
- Alpha pattern: Binaural beats in the alpha pattern are at a frequency of 7–13 Hz and may encourage relaxation.
- Beta pattern: Binaural beats in the beta pattern are at a frequency of 13–30 Hz. This frequency range may help promote concentration and alertness. However, it can also increase anxiety at the higher end of the range.
- Gamma pattern: This frequency pattern accounts for a range of 30–50 Hz. The study authors suggest that these frequencies promote maintenance of arousal while a person is awake.
The purpose of using binaural beats therapy may differ among individuals. Some people may need help decreasing their anxiety, while others might want to increase their concentration or deepen their level of meditation.
Proponents of binaural beat therapy suggest that the potential benefits include:
- reduced stress and anxiety
- increased focus, concentration, and motivation
- improved confidence
- better long term memory after exposure to beta pattern frequencies, according to a 2019 study
- deeper meditation
- enhanced psychomotor performance and mood
However, a 2017 study that measured the effects of binaural beat therapy using EEG monitoring found that binaural beat therapy does not affect brain activity or emotional stimulation. The researchers also monitored heart rate and skin conductance as indicators of emotional arousal.
To listen to binaural beats, a person will need a pair of stereo headphones and an MP3 player or another music system.
As the leading authorities in psychiatric treatment have no recommendations for binaural beats, it is usually the producer of the tape that makes the suggestions for use.
People should follow the instructions carefully. Those who do not see any reduction in anxiety might benefit from trying a different producer, type of sound, or frequency.
It is important to avoid using binaural beats therapy while undertaking tasks that require alertness and full attention, such as driving.
Early research from 2001 suggested that binaural beat therapy may yield some benefit for people with mild anxiety. However, the authors stated that it warranted further study only as a therapeutic measure to support conventional treatments for anxiety.
Despite this, other researchers have continued to investigate this therapy. A 2005 study involving more than 100 participants who were due to receive general anesthesia for a day procedure reported a decrease in preoperative anxiety after exposure to a delta wave binaural beat.
The participants in this study listened to 30 minutes of binaural beats before surgery. However, the researchers noted that people experiencing high levels of preoperative anxiety could listen to binaural beats for up to 1 hour before anesthesia to reduce levels of anxiety.
Researchers from the National College of Natural Medicine in Oregon conducted a study on binaural beat therapy in 2007. They evaluated eight study participants who listened to delta wave binaural beat therapy every day for 60 days.
The results showed a decrease in anxiety, insulin-like growth factor, and dopamine. The participants also reported an increase in quality of life. The team concluded that although the small sample size means that further research is necessary, binaural beats might improve self-reported anxiety.
A 2019 review of 22 studies found a significant link between more prolonged exposure to binaural beat tapes and reduced anxiety. It also found that practitioners did not need to mask the beats with white noise for the treatment to have an effect.
Some researchers have even suggested that 10 minutes of exposure to a 6 Hz frequency could induce a brain state similar to that during meditation.
Although there is little evidence of any adverse side effects of using binaural beat therapy, a literature review of studies identified conflicting data, so further research is necessary.
As with any self-help tool, it is important for a person to speak with a healthcare professional to determine whether binaural beats therapy is right for them.
The quality of the available research is mixed. Many of the studies confirming the benefits of binaural beats therapy involved small cohorts and used subjective measurements, such as questionnaires. There are few recent, high quality studies supporting binary beat therapy as an effective treatment for anxiety.
However, people can practice binary beat therapy at home with no training. Therefore, those who find that it reduces their anxiety can use it to support ongoing anxiety treatment.
It is important to note that there is a lack of research on the long term side effects of the therapy. People may wish to start with shorter sessions of binaural beat therapy and increase their exposure gradually.
What proven self-care measures are available for people with anxiety?
Among nonpharmacologic treatments for anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the most scientific evidence to support its use. However, it is important to consider that CBT, in many people, is best as part of a multimodal treatment plan that includes medication.Andrew Gonzalez, MD, JD, MPH Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.