Binaural Beats: A Meditation Shortcut

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Last updated September 13, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

The phenomena of binaural beats and brainwave entrainment can induce the same mental state associated with traditional meditation practice, but quickly.

The brain has been called a “random thought generator.”

Experts estimate that we think up to 70,000 thoughts per day and that 70% of them are negative

Negative thoughts cause chronic stress which actually changes the function and structure of the brain

Chronic stress also causes myriad mental and physical health problems.

An audio technology called binaural beats can help quiet the mind quickly and relieve stress by inducing the kind of brainwave states experienced during meditation.

Using Binaural Beats for Meditation

Every thought we have changes neural pathways and the output of brain chemicals, creating a cascade of effects on mental health and emotional well-being. 

One of the most effective ways to control negative thinking is with meditation.

Over 1,000 studies have shown that meditation can make you healthier, smarter, and happier. 

Regular meditation can reduce stress, stimulate new brain cell formation, and slow down the rate of brain cell aging.

" Listening to binaural beats can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol by as much as 70% and increase the sleep hormone melatonin by nearly 100%.

But anyone who has tried to do meditation can tell you that quieting the mind is not easy.

It can take years to master the process.

For those who struggle with focus and concentration, meditation can be frustrating and can become an additional source of stress.

In the past 50 years, technologies have been developed that can induce the same brainwave states as meditation.

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One of the most popular forms of sound technology is known as binaural beats.

Using the mechanism of binaural beats creates the same brainwave states as meditation, but takes virtually no effort on your part and can help you experience positive results much faster.

All you have to do is put on a headset or earbuds and listen. 

Understanding Binaural Beats: Brain Waves and Entrainment

To fully understand binaural beats, you need to know a few basics about brain waves and a concept called brainwave entrainment.

Brain cells generate electricity as a way to communicate with each other.

This electrical activity forms patterns known as brain waves.

These patterns can be measured by electroencephalography (EEG), a method of recording electrical activity via electrodes attached to the scalp.

Scientists have found five main patterns of brain waves:

chart showing human brain waves and corresponding cognitive characteristics
Each brainwave state corresponds to a different state of awareness.

Each brainwave state is associated with a different state of consciousness.

We normally go in and out of the various brainwave states throughout the day, depending on what we are experiencing.

But it’s possible to manipulate brain waves into a desired pattern via meditation, binaural beats, or other kinds of sound technology.

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Binaural beats cause the brain to synchronize, or entrain, its electrical activity to the beat frequency.

This has the effect of inducing a desired brainwave pattern, letting us experience the benefits of that brainwave state at will.

Here’s a brief rundown on the characteristics of each brainwave pattern

Delta Brain Waves (below 4 Hz)

Delta waves are the lowest-frequency brain waves and occur during deep, dreamless, restorative sleep.

During sleep, the brain is not simply resting, it’s cycling through 5 stages of sleep and their associated brainwave patterns.

Theta Brain Waves (4 – 7 Hz)

Theta waves are associated with the drowsy state we experience as we are falling asleep, or during light sleep.

They can also be experienced during meditation.

The theta state is characterized by deep relaxation, daydreaming, and creativity.

It is also the brainwave state experienced during hypnosis

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Alpha Brain Waves (8 – 15 Hz)

The brain enters the alpha brainwave state almost immediately whenever we close our eyes.

Alpha waves are associated with relaxed wakefulness and can occur during light meditation.

Many brainwave meditations seek to induce this state since the alpha state is thought to facilitate a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind.

Beta Brain Waves (16 – 31 Hz)

As long as we are physically active and mentally alert, we spend most of our waking day in a beta state.

Since the hallmark of the beta state is one of heightened alertness, it can be overdone.

Spending too much time in the beta state contributes to stress and anxiety.

Gamma Brain Waves (32 Hz and above)

Gamma brain waves (not to be confused with gamma rays) are the highest-frequency brainwaves.

They are the most recently discovered type of brain wave since they could not be measured until the development of digital electroencephalography (EEG).

They are also the least understood.

It is thought that, when in the gamma brainwave state, the senses are sharpened and that feelings of happiness and peace predominate.

This is the brainwave state we tap into whenever we’re in “the zone,” the state of peak performance and blissful immersion.

Heightened focus, super concentration, and exceptional productivity are all characteristics of the gamma state.

Using EEG, researchers have found that Buddhist monks who are seasoned meditators can induce a gamma state during meditation

Brainwave Entrainment: A Natural Phenomenon

The phenomenon of entrainment was discovered by a Dutch scientist over four hundred years ago.

He noticed that his room full of pendulum clocks synchronized automatically.

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Even when he intentionally disrupted their rhythms, they would always re-synchronize.

Brainwave entrainment is a high-tech-sounding name for a very natural phenomenon.

If you’ve ever been mesmerized by the sound of ocean waves or a crackling fire, you’ve experienced brainwave entrainment.

Entrainment is commonly seen in nature.

Fireflies entrain their flashing lights and frogs entrain their croaking.

When you listen to sounds of a certain frequency, your brain waves will synchronize with that frequency.

You entrain every time you hear a musical beat that has you bobbing your head or tapping your foot.

Binaural beats are one of the most popular methods to utilize the phenomenon of brainwave entrainment.

Other technologies include isochronic tones, monaural beats, and audiovisual entrainment.

By listening to sound files that produce brainwave entrainment, you can induce a desired brainwave pattern quickly and reliably.

How Binaural Beats Work

Humans can generally hear sound frequencies in the range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz

This means that our brainwave frequencies mostly fall below our audible range.

So how can our brains entrain to sounds we can’t hear?

The binaural beats phenomenon provides a clever workaround. (Binaural means “two ears.”)

When two tones slightly dissimilar in frequency are processed by the brain, it registers a beat at the difference of the frequencies.

The diagram below illustrates how this works.

If we listen to a 124 Hz sound in the left ear and a 114 Hz sound in the right, our brains entrain to the difference — in this case to 10 Hz which is in the alpha brainwave frequency range.

illustration about how binaural beats work
How the brain processes binaural beats.

Since each ear has to perceive a different frequency for binaural beats to be created, binaural beats are best experienced when the two tones are heard through stereo headphones.

Listening to these sounds triggers numerous beneficial mechanisms.

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Besides altering brainwave patterns, listening to binaural beats can increase brain connectivity and resilience to physical and psychological stress

It can change your biochemistry by modulating the production of hormones and neurotransmitters.

Listening to binaural beats can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol by as much as 70% and increase the sleep hormone melatonin by nearly 100%.

Binaural beats have been shown to increase levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of motivation. 

The Advantage of Binaural Beats Meditation Over Traditional Meditation

Mindvalley, one of the world’s largest personal development platforms, surveyed their customers to understand “why people don’t meditate.”

Their customers were certainly aware of the benefits of meditation, so what obstacles stood in their way?

According to the 400,000+ people who responded to Mindvalley’s survey, the main reasons people don’t stick with a traditional meditation practice are:

  • They can’t tame their mental chatter.
  • They can’t focus.
  • They feel physically restless.
  • It takes too long to get the desired results.

If you’ve tried to meditate, do any of these reasons sound like anything you’ve experienced?

I’ve certainly felt these things.

Using binaural beats provides an easy shortcut to a meditative state.

All you have to do is put on a set of headphones or earbuds, relax, and listen.

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Evidence-Based Benefits of Binaural Beats

The study of brainwave manipulation for the enhancement of brain health and mental well-being is in its infancy.

But so far, over 130 studies on the use of binaural beats have been published in the US National Institutes of Health database.

One study, A Comprehensive Review of the Psychological Effects of Brainwave Entrainmentis often cited as the gold standard on the effectiveness of brainwave entrainment technology.

This meta-analysis of peer-reviewed studies found that brainwave entrainment technologies, including binaural beats, are beneficial for:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • attention deficit
  • behavioral disorders
  • cognitive decline
  • creativity
  • dementia
  • depression
  • headaches
  • intelligence
  • learning disabilities
  • learning disorders
  • memory
  • mental disorders
  • migraines
  • pain
  • premenstrual syndrome
  • sleep
  • stress
  • verbal learning

Impressively, just one session of brainwave entrainment meditation was found to be helpful for some conditions that involved memory, attention, stress, pain, headaches, and migraines.

This study concluded that:

“People suffering from cognitive functioning deficits, stress, pain, headache/migraines, PMS, and behavioral problems benefited from BWE. However, more controlled trials are needed to test additional protocols with outcomes.”

You can read or download a copy of the study here.

Getting Started With Binaural Beats Meditation

If you’ve never heard the sound of isolated binaural beats before, click on the arrow below to play a sample.

Ideally, you should listen with headphones to get the full effect, but, even without them, you will get a general idea of what pure binaural beats sound like.


Listen to the sound of binaural beats. File courtesy of Wikipedia.

This sound is not very pleasant, which is why most binaural beats meditation sound files are overlaid with music or environmental sounds.

Some binaural beats soundtracks seek to bring about a particular state associated with meditation — usually alpha or theta, or sometimes the gamma state.

Others are designed to help alleviate specific problems or achieve specific goals.

There are binaural beats audios designed to induce sleep, reduce anxiety, aid weight loss, or enhance concentration.

One of the most unusual, and controversial, uses of binaural beats technology is to encourage lucid dreaming, a state of consciousness in which dreamers are aware that they are dreaming, to purportedly achieve various cognitive and emotional benefits.

There are free binaural beats meditation audio programs available online.

But be aware that some are better than others and that binaural beats meditations are not a one-size-fits-all remedy.  

For example, lower frequency ranges are best for relaxation and pain reduction, while higher frequency beats in the beta and gamma ranges are useful for memory improvement.

We recommend Binaural Beats Meditation.

This company offers a wide selection of binaural beats meditations to help you relax, sleep, and cope with many specific health conditions.

They also have programs to help you achieve aspirational goals, such as increasing motivation and sticking with healthy habits.

Their high-quality sound files blend binaural beats harmoniously with original music. 

You can download 10-minute versions of their four most popular meditations for free.

Warnings Regarding Binaural Beats

Some websites that sell binaural beats meditations claim that they “can’t” be dangerous because they produce brainwave states that naturally occur.

But this is faulty logic since your body can activate many responses or create chemicals that, in excess, can harm you.

While no safety trials have been conducted on binaural beats, they are generally considered to be safe for most people, with a few exceptions.

There is some concern that listening to binaural beats could be a problem for anyone who has epilepsy, an irregular heartbeat, or wears a pacemaker. 

Since brain waves and heart rhythms are both electrical patterns, it is theoretically possible that listening to binaural beats could trigger seizures or disrupt heartbeat rhythm in susceptible people.

Pregnant women and children should avoid binaural beats applications since their safety has not been determined for these groups.

If you have a serious mental disorder or brain injury, discuss binaural beats meditation with your doctor before giving it a try.

If you experience any negative effects while listening to a binaural beats meditation, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, or increased heartbeat, stop using it immediately.

Traditional meditation may be the more prudent option if you experience side effects or fall into any of these at-risk categories. 

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