In the mid-1970’s Brian Eno hypothesized that music and sound would someday become “wallpaper” and used as backgrounds to our state of mind. Much in the way that we paint a wall you could also paint your space with sound. Today this seems to have come true as most of us have a favorite playlists, tracks for different states of mind and we use a lot of our productive time compiling these moods and grooves for future use. But what if we could take this one step further – into the realm of affecting your consciousness (painting the brain, so to speak) through sound?
I am here to tell you that we can, in fact, alter our state-of-being through the use of binaural beats. Although it hasn’t been a widely-researched topic until recently, binaural beats have been (very effectively) used by therapists as well as people looking to heighten their state of meditation for almost 100 years now. They are also used by people interested in lucid dreaming (the waking sleep state) and out-of-body experiences as they can help induce these states of mind as well. Now I know what you’re thinking – a combination “that happened to me at my first rave,” and “this sounds hokey,” which are both true. There seems to be some new-age sort of language (and music) that comes with a Google search of “binaural beats.” And most of us intuitively understand the hypnotic and trance-like states of mind that can be achieved by listening/dancing to electronic music with repetitive rhythms. But this is something entirely different.
In a nutshell here’s how it works: You put on a pair of headphones and in one ear is a sine wave of 315 hz. In the other ear is a sine running at 325 hz. Your hearing ears can’t tell the difference between the slight variation in sounds.. but your brain is doing the math inside and a resulting “beat” happens in your head. It sometimes sounds like a low pulsing sound (depending on the source material) and sometimes it sounds like not much more than a soft phasing. The best method to create a binaural beat is using sine waves but these sounds (which are very subtle) can be applied or mixed with almost any other material for heightened or altered effect.
The Monroe Institute (a company who’s founder helped discover binaural beats) explains the phenomenon as follows: When two tones of slightly different frequency are presented separately to the left and right ears the listener perceives a single tone that varies in amplitude at a frequency equal to the frequency difference between the two tones, a perceptual phenomenon known as the binaural auditory beat.
The science behind what is happening relates to the way that the human ear perceives distance and physical space through sound. The brain uses small frequency ranges called critical bands to detect small time differences between right an left ears. Because these critical bands have small frequency ranges the difference in frequency between sounds (in right and left ears) can be no greater than about 30hz to create a working binaueal beat.
I found binaural beats through a friend who works as a therapist in Santa Monica during a session to “center my being and relax” – a result of me asking a lot of questions about the subject. During our session he put on a set of headphones on me and guided me through a spoken meditation session. It worked fairly well but I was really intrigued by the cd he played for me. It was 45 minutes long and sounded like white noise phasing in and out – a nice relaxing sound. But the effect it had on me was incredible and left me with a wonderful, almost child-like sense of peace. After incessant pestering he gave me the CD which is called “Hemi Sync” by the Monroe Institute.
To say the CD changed my life is an understatement. For the past few years I have used that same 45 minutes of sound to help reduce stress, reduce tinnitus, enhance my creativity, find the solution to a problem, sleep deeper and wake more alert. I sometimes listen to it every day.. and sometimes I forget about it only to find it again as the solution to a problem of my body not being in sync with my brain. Like most people I am receiving input on so many levels that I need something to balance things out – and binaural beats help.
While Hemi-Sync is a trademarked product (that costs a bit of money to buy) there are many free programs to create your own binaural beats as well as many sites where you can download them for free. Healing Beats is a great site to gain more information (especially through their forums) and download some sounds for free.To create your own – Gnaural is a popular open-source program (all platforms) that allows you to create binaural beats on your computer.
In application to music the binaural beat has been present for at least a couple of decades. Many psy-trance and ambient producers use this method to enhance the mind-state of the listener. Ambient composer Michael Mantra created a small niche for himself in the early 90’s by creating what he called “tools for brain hemisphere synchronization” on the now legendary Silent record label. More recently his work influenced DeepChord / Echospace / CV313’s Rod Modell as he explained to Textura: “Rod Modell Plays Michael Mantra is a project that I did that contains two thirty-minute tracks. More ambient than most Deepchord. It’s a sonic emulation of a late-night train ride. I love this one. Good for drifting-off to. Like a dream state. With tracks by my good friend Michael Mantra (the undisputed master of the binaural beat). Mike understands the deepest levels of sound.”
Michael Walsh is an audio/visual artist and journalist living in Los Angeles. Read more of his work at soundsdefygravity.com