– Binaural audio is sound that travels at two different frequencies. The difference between them stimulates brainwaves that can have powerful effects on your mood and cognition.
– Binaural beats that provoke a 40 Hz response in the brain stimulate gamma brainwaves, which help concentration.
– Fast music (140 beats per minute) is best for increasing focus.
– Music that produces brainwaves of 8 to 13 Hz helps you relax.
– Binaural beats are available on apps and from online stores.
Binaural Audio: Music for Increased Concentration and Relaxation
Music is the Swiss Army knife of sound. It can amp you up, chill you out, entertain, educate, and even change whole cultures (“You say you want a revolution…”). Listening to the right kind of music might even help you learn faster, accomplish more, and sleep better, too.
Music that’s recorded in binaural audio shows promise for enhancing focus, productivity, and relaxation, so—believe it or not—it may be a better choice to play in the background when you’re trying to work than Master of Puppets (relax, we said, “may be…”) We put some on, and then wrote this article.
What Is Binaural Audio?
Binaural audio, sometimes called binaural beats, refers to sounds that travel at two different frequencies—one for each ear. Binaural audio is recorded with the intention of duplicating the way the ears hear sound as closely as possible, so the effect can be very powerful and immersive. In fact, one of the ways binaural recordings are made is with the use of a dummy head that has microphones positioned in the ears, simulating a human listener.
Listening to a binaural audio track is like being in the middle of whatever you’re hearing—a rainforest, symphony concert, temple filled with OM-ing yogis, etc. It’s a prime way to listen to ASMR tracks (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response)—recordings that evoke relaxation or pleasure, like soft whispers, tapping, brushing, or Mr. Rogers talking. However, because binaural recordings are meant to pick up sound the way your ears do, you need to listen to them with headphones or earbuds to get the full effect, as opposed to a set of speakers.
The two different sound frequencies create a vibrational speed called a beat. When you listen to them, your brain wants to make up the difference between the tones, and in doing so tunes into the frequency of the beat. This activates certain brainwaves—electrical pulses associated with different brain functions—that change your arousal level.
According to research in the journal Anaesthesia, there are five main kinds of brainwaves.
Gamma (25 to 100 Hz): Associated with high levels of concentration, elevated cognitive function, and emotions like compassion.
Beta (14 to 100 Hz): Supports increased focus, alertness, arousal, and, in higher frequencies, can prompt anxiousness.
Alpha (8 to 13 Hz): Helps you unwind and chill out.
Theta (4 to 8 Hz): The sweet spot for upping your creativity, going into a meditative state, or getting better REM sleep.
Delta: (0.1 to 4 Hz): Promotes dreamless, deep sleep.
While the brain is always producing all five types of waves to some degree, different kinds of stimulation can change up the balance and make one more prevalent than the others.
Cory Allen, an Austin-based audio engineer who creates his own binaural beats, and the host of The Astral Hustle podcast (cory-allen.com), says, “When you’re in a flow state [times that you feel you’re “in the zone” and focused], your brainwaves are firing at high speeds. And when you’re asleep or in a deep meditation, they’re much slower. Binaural beats can help entrain brainwaves to match our desired state.” That is, you can play them to conjure up the exact brainwaves you want for a particular time or goal—be it working, meditating, or going to sleep.
How Can Binaural Beats Help Me?
Binaural audio has been shown to promote better thinking, ease anxiety, and encourage relaxation and better sleep. A study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that binaural beats of all frequencies improved listeners’ divergent thinking (creative thinking that involves connecting seemingly disparate ideas). Meanwhile, a trial in the Journal of Neurophysiology concluded that low-frequency, theta wave-inducing audio helped synchronize activity in the cerebral cortex, where high-order cognitive processes take place.
Canadian researchers looked at binaural audio’s effect on anxiety. Fifteen “mildly anxious” people were asked to listen to music that produced brainwaves in the delta and theta range at least five times weekly for four weeks. After a month of listening to the tracks for approximately 30 minutes per session, the subjects reported feeling significantly-reduced anxiety levels.
“I get messages almost every day saying how my music is helping people relax at night,” Allen says. “We’ve all got so much going on that it can be hard to get our minds to slow down when we get into bed. Meditation can help, but sometimes you’re too worn out to concentrate on it. Listening to binaural beats allows you to create a calming ritual in which you’re just a receiver. Many people tell me this helps them fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.”
Apart from the beats that Allen sells for just a few dollars on his website, you can get brainwave-altering tunes from grammy-nominated composer BT and DJ FreQ Nasty, from apps such as Binaural (β) and Binaural Beats if you’re an Apple user, or, if you use an Android device, Binaural Beats Therapy.
Can Music Really Help with Concentration, Focus, and Relaxation?
Don’t take our word for it. A study in Physiology & Behavior showed that subjects who listened to beats that produced beta brainwaves scored higher on a vigilance task—a test that measures the speed at which you respond to visual stimuli—than the control group, and also reported having a more positive mood. The same frequency range helped people in a 2019 trial to improve their recall and recognition of words. Furthermore, an observational study of students with attention deficit disorder found that binaural beats that stimulated alpha and beta brainwaves improved concentration levels.
Binaural audio may also help you chill out after a tough workout. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology discovered that, when participants listened to theta-inducing beats after exercise, they experienced an increase in parasympathetic activity compared to when they listened to a consistent musical tone. Parasympathetic activity indicates the “rest and digest” state, in which the body recovers from exercise.
Allen recently contributed two types of binaural audio to a multi-university study in Australia. The first track featured audio that makes the music listenable and enjoyable, but without the functional elements he usually includes to stimulate the brainwaves. The second one had both components. While the study is ongoing, Allen says, “So far, the researchers are finding that the [second] full binaural track is having psychotherapeutic benefits for participants who are dealing with trauma.”
What’s the Best Music for Concentration?
For times that you need to get shit done, you want something that gets your gamma waves going. In his book Astonishing Hypothesis, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA and a Nobel Laureate, suggested that the most typical gamma frequency found in the human brain—40 Hz—is optimal for the synchronization of brain activity.
A 2017 study noted that when people listened to binaural beats at 40 Hz, they improved performance on a memory-related visual task, suggesting that gamma waves can also enhance learning.
Of course, binaural audio isn’t the only kind that can affect your thinking. While the so-called “Mozart effect” (the theory that listening to Mozart music can improve mental performance) is the source of much controversy in the research realm, a review by researchers at Western Michigan University suggests that listening to classical music can indeed heighten certain kinds of cognition. Subjects saw improvements on the analytical portion of the GRE exam after listening to a Mozart piano sonata—but similar results were also recorded by a group that listened to traffic sounds instead. Therefore, it seems that there may be benefit to your ability to concentrate whether you choose binaural beats, classical music, or noise that helps you tune out the rest of the word.
What’s the Best Music for Focus?
When you’re trying to find optimal focus, you want to stimulate beta brainwaves. University of Wisconsin-Madison research found that listening to fast music was best for increasing brainwave speeds, so put on a playlist that’s heavy on high-tempo EDM (with the optimal beats per minute being around 140). Want to remove the guesswork? Then visit Focus at Will’s website, select one of four profiles (creative thinker, entrepreneur, student, or logical thinker), and you’ll get playlists specifically tuned for the kind of focus you’re trying to find.
What’s the Best Music for Relaxation?
If you find it hard to chill out, binaural beats might be the prescription. “The pacing of our brainwaves mirrors the world around us,” says Allen, “and they get increasingly chaotic as our attention gets pulled in different directions. This contributes to anxiety, chronic stress, and depression. You can listen to binaural beats to slow your brain down and reclaim your mental sovereignty.”
If you’re looking to get your relaxation on, then you need binaural beats in a frequency range between 8 and 13 Hz to stimulate alpha waves in your brain. A team from Roanoke College concluded that, unlike other kinds of brain oscillations, alpha waves are unaffected by musical tempo. “Preference, rather than the mental relaxation of the participant produced by the music, has a greater effect on alpha wave activity,” the researchers wrote. In other words, just listen to anything that feels relaxing to you—even if that’s Master of Puppets! If you want a little more guidance, DJ/producer Tom Middleton created an album—Sleep Better —that hits the sonic bullseye for alpha-wave relaxation with disc two, while disc one (big shocker) promotes improved slumber.
If you’re still struggling to wind down in the evening, Allen recommends stacking meditation with binaural beats to amplify the relaxing effects of both disciplines. “Combining binaural beats with meditation will help you become more centered and slow your brain down,” he says. “This kind of music is the perfect complement when you’re trying to access the lower brainwave states.”