This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2024

Beat generation

Some people swear these auditory illusions can alter their moods

Tyler Hein

Red and yellow sound waves stretch across a dark backdrop

Sometime around 2005, in the halcyon days of the internet when it was still treading its path to ubiquity, I peaked. Hunkered down late at night in a small room exclusively dedicated to housing a family desktop computer, I used the free peer-to-peer file-sharing client LimeWire to pirate the less-free peer-to- peer file-sharing client LimeWire Pro. The genius of such a move is one I will never again equal. From there, I sifted through mislabelled songs, copious malware, and recordings of Bill Clinton saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” until I found something called digital drugs. The pirated folder contained audio files supposedly engineered to simulate, using specialized sound waves, the sensations of different substances.

Back then, on the precipice of puberty, I knew about drugs the way I know about the concept of enlightenment now. That is, I knew vaguely what sensation I was expecting without any firm idea of when I’d know I was experiencing it. With a smorgasbord of different drugs’ effects at my fingertips, I ran the gauntlet. Beyond the whole medley that appeared in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there were audio sequences said to recreate the feeling of certain experiences: swimming in a frigid lake, déjà vu, having sex with a co-worker on an out- of-town work trip, confessing your love to a best friend, the anticipation floating around a marathon’s starting gun. I was surprised to find that these promises felt accurate: the sounds did take my mind to another place. To some degree, each felt like dreaming for the first time, like being dropped in the middle of an already running narrative and left to gradually fumble around for my place in the proceedings before being suddenly yanked into another thread of another unfolding story only to start all over again.

Of course, I had no idea whether any of it actually was accurate, or if anything was happening at all. As it turns out, that was a more difficult question than it would initially appear. What was being advertised as “digital drugs” were combinations of sound frequencies known as binaural beats, and their legitimacy, efficacy, and potential medical and recreational impacts remain up for debate.


Binaural beats were first discovered by Prussian physicist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove in 1839 by striking tuning forks on each side of a student’s head and learning they heard the difference in frequency as a slow, third beat. Dove didn’t pursue the discovery further. It wasn’t until the 1970s, with the work of Dr. Gérald Oster, that binaural beats were taken as anything more than a mild curiosity by the scientific community. In 1973, Scientific American published Oster’s article “Auditory Beats in the Brain,” which outlined the differences between monaural beats and binaural beats. Oster described monaural beats as only requiring one ear to perceive. Binaural beats, on the other hand, he described as “perceived when tones of different frequency are presented separately to each ear,” which requires the use of both ears to localize and selectively filter out certain sounds, such as when eavesdropping on a conversation at a large, noisy party. His observations and insight opened the question of whether binaural beats could be a new, rich vein for cognitive and neurological research.

Later work further clarified the binaural beat effect as something akin to an auditory illusion. In the simplest terms, binaural beats aren’t a sound, per se. More accurately, they’re a perception of sound when two pure tones, played at a different frequency into each ear, create the recognition of an additional modulation of tone within the brain. This third tone is the binaural beat. Despite the technical lack of another tone, the brain registers the difference in frequency between the two tones as a third, distinct tone. For example, when a pure tone is played at an 80 Hz frequency in the left ear and a 90 Hz pure tone is played in the right ear, the brain would perceive a third tone at a frequency of 10 Hz. Most interestingly, the origin of this third tone is perceived by the listener to be from within their own head.

In the 1980s and later, neurological and auditory research began to focus jointly on the reasons our brains create this effect and on whether there are any potential usages, specifically whether it can entrain mood or perception or— perhaps—even act analogously to a drug. The optimistic belief in the ability of binaural beats to synthesize a selected result is based on two strong reasonings. One is that, for most of human history, music and sound have been used to tune into a particular headspace. All of us have a song or two that changes our mood, positively or negatively, simply by hearing it. The second reason for belief in the potential of binaural beats is due to our greater scientific understanding of brain waves with the invention and wider use of magnetic imaging.

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that reads electrical activity in the brain using electrodes attached to the scalp which looks familiar to anyone who watches horror movies, we can see how brain cells communicate by measuring electric impulses. Our brain cells are always in communication, and the frequency with which they are in communication shows up as wavy lines on an EEG recording. In 2016, researchers in the Department of Computer Science and Information Technology at the Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in India used an EEG test to observe and group brain waves. Their research concluded there to be five main frequency bands of brain waves that are believed to correspond to our emotional states.

When we’re asleep, our brain waves are in Delta, low frequency, because there isn’t much to communicate beyond the messages required to keep us alive. During a deeply relaxing scenario, when our minds tend to wander into daydreams, such as being pampered at a spa, our brains are likely in Theta, which operates at a frequency between 4 to 8 Hz and relates to our subconscious mind. A slightly higher frequency, up to around 12 Hz, will likely be registered when someone is passively focused and generally relaxed. Thus, it’s likely this range—Alpha—will correspond to someone who is rewatching The Office for the dozenth time. Basically, it’s being in a general good mood free of the need to meaningfully engage with an external source. The Beta wavelength is typically our normal frequency. It operates between 12-35 Hz and can range from relaxation to anxiety depending on the world around us. The frequency band with the highest Hz, anything above 35, is Gamma, which signals a heightened degree of concentration. This is the wavelength of our brains when we’re focused on a task or situation.

All this is to say that it’s believed by some scientists, and binaural beat connoisseurs, that we can use the brain’s perception of binaural beats to simply recalibrate our current wavelength into whichever frequency band we desire to experience. But the question remains: does it work?


Back in 2005, I was an audio addict, digitally dosing myself on LSD, heroin, mescaline, and strange designer drugs only known by some combination of letters and numbers. As far as I knew, the sensations were similar to their physical counterpoints. Digital cannabis made me giggle. I’d have vivid daydreams on audio psychedelics. Binaural beats mimicking cocaine had me impatient and talkative, jittery with a vague sense of violence. Of course, that was the past. And time has a way of softening people, so now I use binaural beats to achieve a flow state of concentration or induce drowsiness for a power nap.

A pilot study conducted by the Oregon Health & Science University and the National College of Natural Medicine on the neuropsychologic, physiologic, and electroencephalographic effects of binaural beat technology on humans found no significant differences between the experimental and control condition in any of the EEG measures. But in that same study, the self-reported measurements of the participants saw an increase in mood and a decrease in overall anxiety. Better put: there was no scientific reason that participants felt an improvement in mood, yet they did.

There must be a motive behind why people are using binaural beats. Anecdotally speaking, I certainly feel calmer when I listen to one of the myriad binaural beats soundscapes that are easily findable online, so isn’t that the same thing as being calmer, even if my brainwaves disagree? After all: I think, therefore I am. That may be the entire point, suggests Dr. Monica Barratt, a senior research fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. “There are a lot of activities that affect our nervous system and can produce psychoactive effects, including meditation, chanting, exercising, even doing art,” says Barratt. “Yes, we can consider binaural beats through [this] lens.”

And I’m not alone in using them for this reason. In 2021, Barratt was a researcher with the Global Drug Survey (GDS), an independent research study that aimed to collect data on drug use patterns and trends worldwide. When questioned on the survey, five percent of the over 30,000 respondents said they used binaural beats to experience altered states at least once within the last year.

Dr. Cristina Gil López, a cognitive neuroscience researcher and educator, writes on her website that the beats have become trendy due to our increasing difficulty to focus and be productive in our daily activities. We live in a state of permanent distraction, so we seek new ways to mentally focus and decrease off-putting distractions, like anxiety. Other studies echo the sentiment that exposure to binaural beats can boost cognition by reducing anxiety and the perception of pain, albeit modestly.

So where do we go from here? While large-scale investigations comparing the effects of binaural beats specifically and auditory beats as a whole are still rare, there are some promising case studies for their potential application. One such avenue is the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP). The SSP is a therapeutic tool that uses specially filtered music designed to stimulate the vagus nerve, which carries signals between the brain and heart. The SSP is intended to induce the body and mind into feeling a sense of safety. There have been successful case studies that show SSP exposure can improve social awareness in children and adults with autism and help to reduce chronic pain in older patients.

Barratt herself underwent the protocol as part of her research. For 30 days, she listened to audio files as part of the SSP and may have discovered the everyday benefits binaural beats could have on many of us. “I felt some positive effects and there [weren’t] any downsides. It could all be placebo in the sense that taking time every day to listen to some special music may be an intervention in itself.”

While writing this piece, I thought about what initially drew me to these files. The truth is I have no idea. There was no larger reason behind accessing them beyond the fact that I could.

It took roughly 135 years from a Prussian physicist striking tuning forks on opposite sides of the room and noticing the effect for another researcher to even give that effect a name. Since then, we’ve seen vast leaps in technology that have allowed scientists to measure, with as much certainty as currently exists, that nothing is happening within the brain that can explain why binaural beats can improve our mood and decrease our anxiety levels. But people who listen to them claim that they do, time and time again. In defiance of the science, they feel that listening to binaural beats can impact their mood.

Maybe in another 135 years we’ll discover that they’re right. Maybe we’ll still only know that the effects are something many people enjoy. Maybe that’s all the reasoning I needed to enjoy binaural beats as much as I did when I was 12.

I know it’s all the reason I need to enjoy them now.

Tyler Hein is a Finnish-Canadian writer from Sudbury, Ontario who now resides in Vancouver. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. He knows many fun facts about platypuses (not platypi). His work has been published across the world, most recently in Outcrop Poetry, Freefall, and The Deadlands. More of his work can be found at

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