“Blissful positive energy,” “Full chakra healing,” “Extremely powerful third eye opening” — such are the benefits of binaural beat listening as promised in the titles of a few popular YouTube videos.[1] Throughout the wide distribution network of binaural beat audio, discourses abound that purport effects such as heightened sexual arousal; improved performance at job interviews; psychedelic-like drug experiences; enhancements in creativity, IQ, and lucid dreaming; and assistance in the fight against cancer. More than a panacea, binaural beats and the meditative auditory experience the associated rhetoric claims they provide, do not just heal or prevent defect and injury; they heighten the overall quality of life. Or, so is the promise. 

        Employing terminology from neuroscience, psychology, and psychoacoustics, the creators and distributors of binaural beat audio immerse their products in scientific rationality that is reminiscent of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century parlor science, which wove together spiritualism and science in a tight web (Sconce 2000; Sterne 2003). Similarly, binaural beat audio weaves its own messy web — across discourses, across materialities, across histories, from that of nineteenth-century American Spiritualism to the 1960s counterculture and the subsequent New Age movement. This paper will unravel a portion of this web, not in an attempt to affirm or debunk the claims surrounding binaural beat audio, but in order to explore how the subjects of binaural beat audio are (and have been) positioned affectively, via both the discourses and materialities of binaural beat audio. The affective subjects of binaural beat audio are emotional and experiential subjects, are psychoacoustic subjects, are bodies and minds and the transverses that never allow this binary to be fully realized. In the creation and commodification of binaural beat audio, the presumed affective capacities of its listening subjects — autonomic and non-cognitive — are put to work. In the Foucauldian sense, binaural beat audio affords reception only via the affective work of the listening body and positions its subject thusly. Theories of affect here are informed largely by Brian Massumi (2002) as well as Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg (2010: 1), the latter offering a concise description of affect as “found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.” This paper will thus explore the presumed bodily-affective capacities of listening subjects and the complex discursive and material networks designed to arouse them and incite resonance between human body and non-human sounding media. Furthermore, this paper will situate these discourses and materials historically, with an ear lent to the processes of “crystallization,” to use the language of Bruno Latour, that have cemented binaural beats as commercial media objects.


Binaural beats    

          Binaural beats, and the claims in which they come packed, are no doubt controversial. They have incited parental drug panics similar to those of LSD and marijuana (More4Kids 2010; Singel 2010), and some even suggest that binaural beat audio practices have ties to the CIA’s 20-year MKUltra program, which researched techniques for enhanced interrogation via the use of LSD and hypnosis (Cannon 1992Rutz 2003). Researching the history of binaural beats, one oscillates between science and pseudoscience, theory and conspiracy theory, unnamed “official” sources and crystal healers, history and clandestine history. Truly, their history is murky. Sites that distribute binaural beat audio tend to locate the practice’s roots in “ancient” mediation and healing practices. Prior to the “modern” age, they were the territory of a variety of non-specific “Tibetan monks, Native American shamans, Hindu healers, and mastered Yogis.” Binaural beats were then “re-discovered,” and their theory formalized throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries by a lengthy list of well-credentialed scientists like Heinrich Wilhelm Dove and Robert Monroe (Binaural Brains n.d.). This is, of course, open to debate, like any historical account. This paper is not seeking to trace this complex history in exhaustive form, nor separate out the science from the pseudoscience, but rather outline a few specific points of continuity and discontinuity in order to illuminate how binaural beat audio and its surrounding discourses position its listeners as affective subjects. But first, what are binaural beats?

        As a psychoacoustic phenomenon, binaural “beating” occurs when two sustained sine tones of slight frequency difference (less than 40 Hz) are played, one in each ear via headphones (i.e., dichotically). In the perception of these two tones, the auditor will also hear a psychoacoustically engendered third tone with a frequency of the difference between the two initial tones. Thus, if a tone of 440 Hz is directed into one ear and a tone of 450 Hz is directed into the other ear, a third tone of 10 Hz will be perceived that lends the harmony a pulsating effect at the rate of this third tone. The neuroscience here is complex, but essentially this effect occurs due to interaural phase differences between the two original tones. As the peaks and troughs of the waves shift relative to one another, the resultant perceived sound will seem to increase in amplitude at places where the peaks match and decrease in amplitude at places where peaks and troughs cancel each other out; this cancellation occurs periodically at the difference between the two tones (Figure 1).[2]


Audio Acid: Affective Design and the Psychoacoustic Trip

Ryan LaLiberty

Figure 1. Binaural beat effect (Physclips n.d.).

This effect is easily demonstrated using two closely tuned sine tone generators and a pair of headphones. The controversy arises when this psychoacoustic phenomenon is linked to the “entrainment” of brainwaves, where it is claimed that the physical stimuli of binaural beating can synchronize with neural-electrical activity in the brain, sympathetically resonating particular bands of cortical neurons (“brainwaves”) and, in effect, inciting cognitive and mental states — states that, if one believes the marketing rhetoric, can open up the third eye, induce enlightenment, boost sexual performance, and even help one study for the GRE. One website, (self-described as “the leading provider of artisan brainwave doses”), implies comparisons to LSD with their language of “dosing,” and testimonials from their users emphasize these comparisons. User HILT calls the “White Dose” audio pack “as close as you can come to the real thing without actually ingesting it,” and user Peter calls the “Trip Dose” pack “the best trip of my life” (I-Doser n.d.). Their various products promise a variety of “simulated experiences” with myriad positive effects. With titles like the “Fountain of Youth Pack,” “Prescription Doses,” “Sacred Doses,” and “Chemical Doses,” alongside marketing rhetoric that promises to allow the listener to “explore the vast recess of your mind, space, and the cosmos” and “experience an isolating space journey, and egoless driven spiritual journey,” the products of I-Doser merge New Age discourses, already infused with the rhetoric of science, with discourses of modern medicine. Emphasizing this latter point, they issue a warning to the listener: “Brainwave doses use powerful audio. I-Doser makes no claims to their effectiveness and they should be used for entertainment only. I-Doser may impair ability. Use at your own risk” (I-Doser n.d.).

        These effects, unlike the supposed effects of many meditative practices, are not necessarily seen as a result of trained effort or intention on the part of the listener, but rather (supposedly) as direct, autonomic effects of incited neurological processes — little different than ingesting a drug. Experimental studies have been conducted that lend some credence to these claims, but studies using binaural beat audio remain uncommon (Padmanabhan, Hildreth and Laws 2005; Le Scouranec, Poierier, Owens and Gauthier 2001; Wahbeh, Calabrese and Zwickey 2007). As a psychoacoustic effect, however, there is no controversy that binaural beating is real and measurable, and in the design of binaural beat audio, this psychoacoustic phenomenon is emphasized, in particular the supposition and positioning of affective subjects. This positioning is not only discernible within the marketing rhetoric of binaural beat audio, but necessarily so in their material means of production and reproduction.

Binaural beat from 440 Hz and 450 Hz sine tones

From lab equipment to “mind machines” and digital beats  

           As binaural beat audio is functionally directed at achieving particular mental and emotional states, it can potentially be located within a larger history of sound-induced trance experience. Gilbert Rouget (1985) has written about the links between music and trance at length, but he does not touch on the effect of binaural beats in any explicit sense, nor does Judith Becker (2008) in her oft-cited Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing. Rouget’s insight, however, that trance states are just as much culturally influenced as psycho-physiologically is relevant here in a discussion of the ways in which the rhetorical discourses surrounding binaural beat audio attempt to position their listening subject with their full affective and psychoacoustic capacities in mind. Binaural beat audio differs from the trance sonics expounded upon in these works in two major ways: (1) in its multiplicity of use — binaural beat audio is not ostensibly solely for trance, but has other claimed mental, emotional, and physiological uses, as has been noted — and (2) in its means of production. The production of “effective” binaural beats is wholly contingent on the technology producing and reproducing them. The purity of the sine waves necessary for producing pronounced beating effects requires fine-grained control over sound synthesis. While flutes, ocarinas, tuning forks, and the human voice can approximate the sinusoidal shape, all feature harmonics that a pure sine wave is bereft of and that would negatively affect the beating phenomenon. Moreover, all rely on human excitation to produce; while a tuning fork can produce a relatively pure sinusoidal wave as it rings out, neither the percussive waves of attack or decay are purely sinusoidal (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Waveform of a tuning fork (Anon. 2015).


Thus, the ideal manner in which to produce sinusoidal waves of utmost purity is via electrical means, distanced, at least in the means of production, from the acoustic impurities of real spaces and bodies.

        Avoiding the finer technical points of analog and digital sine signal synthesis for the moment, the possibilities for binaural beat audio generation came to the fore with the development of electrical audio synthesis in the mid-twentieth century. Early sine oscillators were largely used as laboratory test equipment, desirable for their ability to produce an approximately pure sine tone, and generally featured unwieldy, expensive, and fragile vacuum tubes in their circuits. Eventually, as the transistor and integrated circuit came to market, it became possible to miniaturize these circuits and produce them more cheaply, prefiguring their role in the commercial musical synthesizer. Into the 1960s, the synthesizer morphed from an amalgamation of lab equipment to an instrument in its own right via the hands of Robert Moog and Don Buchla, coinciding with the beginnings of the loose social movement and musical genre termed New Age. The newfound possibilities for relatively pure sine synthesis on a small, affordable scale eventually found their way into purpose-built binaural beat signal generators. Typically falling under the umbrella of “mind machines,” these products, like the Inner Technologies Shaman and the Inner Technologies Binaural Signal Generator, appropriated the concepts and technologies of synthesis alongside scientific and New Age discourses that purport the reality of certain binaural beat effects.

        As computers came to be increasingly utilized in music production, and as digital audio workstations (DAWs) grew to occupy much of the audio production market share through the late 1990s and 2000s, software synthesis increasingly took on the role of binaural beat signal generation. Avoiding the need for purpose-built hardware, the creation of binaural beats via software oscillators was cheaper and easier. A user can simply input two closely tuned frequency values into a generic software sine oscillator, like Audacity, pan them hard left and hard right, plug in a pair of headphones, and induce the effect. Even easier, however, is to install purposely designed binaural beat generator software like Gnaural. Gnaural began as a MS-DOS program in the mid 1990s, eventually finding its way onto the Windows platform in the early 2000s, and now is a fully featured, cross-platform application. While listeners can download this software and produce binaural beats for their own purposes, they can also produce audio for use by others, leading in part to the current market of binaural beat audio.

        Throughout the 1990s, embedded in a burgeoning New Age marketplace, binaural beat albums became commonplace among the racks of New Age and World Music albums, wrapped up in matching discourses of mental and emotional well-being, universal consciousness, and other tropes of the New Age genre. As the music industry shifted to a largely digital marketplace, so did the market supply of binaural beat audio. Beyond the aging CD racks of physical stores, physical albums became purchasable online, and, moreover, downloadable digital albums also achieved widespread availability in greater numbers than their physical predecessors, such as those to be found at A cursory search of Amazon[3] gives 804 results for “binaural beats” in CDs & Vinyl and well over 20,000 results in Digital Music. Beyond purchasable whole albums, YouTube and Vimeo are replete with binaural beat content, with almost 2.7 million results on YouTube[4] alone, including some videos with over five million views. As media-technological objects, binaural beat audio are positioned across a network of materialities, from production equipment such as analog lab oscillators and digital software such as Gnaural, to playback systems with specific frequency reproduction ranges and a variety of ear-to-speaker interfaces ( even publishes a list of “approved” headphones). Moreover, binaural beat audio is also positioned across the body in its supposition of an affective, psychoacoustic subject. Before exploring this further, it is worth looking at two other examples where subjects have been positioned affectively via sound design, situating affective design historically: one in commercial-industrial practices and the other in avant-garde music composition.



[3] As of April 7, 2016.

[4] As of April 7, 2016.

Muzak and affective conditioning

          Jonathan Sterne (2003; 2012) has written at length about the ties between psychoacoustic research and the history of audio technologies. In his work on the MP3 file format, Sterne (2012) outlines the interplay between psychoacoustic research and technological development as it is formalized in “perceptual coding.” Taking into account the imperfections, irregularities, and eccentricities of the human ear in the design and development of said technologies, perceptual coding allies the limitations of the body with the input and output of a medium. Tracing its history, Sterne concurrently traces the history of psychoacoustics as a field of knowledge. Emerging in the late nineteenth century in the study of non-human animals, the field picked up pace during the Second World War with the Harvard Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory. Ultimately, as he notes, the field grew from a larger melding of physiology and other “hard” sciences with psychology — psychology not just as an academic area of inquiry, but as a major field of industrial research, tightly knit with the war effort and, later, with post-war economic expansion and the boom of consumer culture that came with it. From these same burgeoning research areas came issues of music in the workplace as a means to increase industrial productivity.

        Brandon LaBelle (2010) ties the growth of this research to the widespread emphasis on Taylorism in 1920s industrialization. The practice of scientifically managing the workplace lends itself naturally to attempts at “humanizing” the process in order to stimulate greater productivity. Music, it was theorized, could keep the health and mental state of the worker in check, and studies of the period formalized the benefit of doing so towards industrial ends:

          The effects of music were generally recognized to increase metabolism, strengthen or modify mood, and importantly, to           ‘increase not only the intensity of sudden effort, but also the duration of sustained effort and the power of renewing it’.             In addition, the rhythmical structure of songs was discovered to aid in the repetitive movements often found within                   modern work, and to reduce the sense of monotony experienced from such actions. (172)

In the workplace, music not only furnished the mental and emotional fortitude necessary to labor long hours, but it became externalized in the actual practice of this labor. The meter of a song became embodied as the meter of work. Moreover, music could assist in keeping the peace in the alienating mode of scientifically-managed mass production, distracting the worker from the banal repetition of the assembly line and reducing the possibility of conversation, conveniently including union talk, between workers. As this research continued, the Muzak Corporation was formed in 1934 with the express concern of distributing purposely designed music to commercial clients. At first, this clientele largely came from industrial manufacturing, but by the 1940s, as LaBelle notes, the airy melodies and light rhythms of the Muzak Corporation could be heard in offices, restaurants, supermarkets, and, into the 1950s, the shopping mall. As a form of affective audio design, Muzak functioned to stabilize the sonics of these spaces, conditioning the consumer and worker by inducing moods conducive to consumption and production and arousing their bodies to synchronous labor with its rhythms. Effectively, the soundscape came to be understood as part of the architecture, just as much a crucial part of the infrastructure as doors, windows, and load-bearing beams.

La Monte Young, psychoacoustics, and the affective subject      

            Apart from industrial research, though very much indebted to the knowledge it provided, much of the music of American composer La Monte Young relies intimately on psychoacoustic phenomena in the positioning of its listener. Emerging out of the loosely organized Fluxus scene of the 1960s, alongside artists like Henry Flynt and Yoko Ono, Young’s work often presents a radical rethinking and expansion of temporality and spatiality in performed music. Emphasizing the play between the physical aspects of sound and the hearing body, a core component of much of Young’s work has been the pure sine tone. In his Dream House installation pieces with Marian Zazeela, Young sustains his sine tone harmonies indefinitely, giving the listener time to really hear, to “get inside of” tones. In effect, the listener becomes composer. In the extreme duration of these works, psychoacoustic phenomena become prominent. These effects are compounded by Young’s use of just intonation in the tuning of his electronic oscillators. As opposed to equal temperament, the traditional western system of tuning that maintains equal intervals between adjacent pitches, just intonation utilizes whole-number ratios. For Young, equal temperament accomplishes its goal of uniformity and easy modulation between keys at the expense of a particular primordial sonic purity and expressiveness that only perfect intervallic ratios can provide. As Young’s just-intoned harmonies extend in time, particular overtones resonate and overlap in the individual listener’s ear, psychoacoustically amplifying and attenuating as tone clusters shift. Moreover, the body is complicit in the performance, beyond the ear alone: In addition to time, Young emphasizes space in these works. Sound, in the most elementary understanding, is a wave; it is a series of compressions and rarefactions that occupy both space and time. The local environment thus always affects the reception of sound — the open spaces of the cathedral lend the organ lively, lush reverberations, whereas in a treated recording booth it sounds comparatively “dead.” As Young’s sine waves reflect off of surfaces in the immediate space, they come to interfere with one another and with themselves, much as sine tones interact in the psychoacoustic production of the binaural beat. When the peaks of a wave match, the tone’s amplitude increases. When the peak of a wave meets the trough of its reflection, the amplitude decreases. These phase interactions result in “standing waves,” nodes of heightened amplitude of particular tones throughout the space. Thus, as LaBelle (2006: 73) writes, the listener becomes “immersed as in a fluid, sounds oscillate across a range of frequencies through the movements of the body, enfolding the self in a sonic architecture that cannot be said to either exist or not.” The sound of the piece becomes manipulable by the listener as they move about the space. Listening to (and, indeed, in) Young’s Dream House works, the listener is imbricated in a field of sonic event that emphasizes and, at the same time, obscures, the lines between physiology, psychoacoustics, and the acoustics of spaces apart from the body. Young positions his listener as an affective composer whose body entirely shapes the received sound — from the shape of their outer ear, to the physiology of their inner ear, to the autonomic neurologies of sound perception, to their movement within the space. All work in concert to complete the piece.

            While neither Young’s pure sine installation works, nor the soft, unobtrusive melodies of Muzak rely on the binaural beat effect, they are two particularly potent nodes in the complex historical network of affective design in music and sound. For Young, active, embodied perception on the part of the listener was key to his Dream House work. For Muzak, psychoacoustics were of implicit concern. As Sterne (2008: 164) has noted, “psychoacoustic research has conditioned the sound of almost every sonically-designed technology in the twentieth century.” In its playback technologies, originally multiplexed over telephone lines and eventually via satellite, Muzak is indebted to the perceptual coding research undergirded by the psychoacoustic field. Ultimately, both Muzak and the work of La Monte Young figure prominently on the body; their sounds are to be felt, experienced, internalized in concert by the ear and brain and externalized as movement and interaction. Even Muzak, which might seem to ostensibly be “background” music, is foregrounded by the body; Muzak seeks to fill the space around the body and condition its movements and moods. Binaural beat audio merges these approaches. In the explicit reliance on psychoacoustic phenomena, the discourse around binaural beats speaks to a desire to condition the affective body by psychoacoustically “entraining” sympathetic resonances in neural-electrical activity. 


From beats to bodies  

         As in the work of La Monte Young, binaural beat audio positions its listener to complete the work psychoacoustically. The beat does not exist external to its listener, but only in the passage between the body and audio object. While dichotic listening avoids the spatial play of La Monte Young — in the tight coupling of speaker and ear, there is no space that the audio can occupy other than the skull — binaural beat audio and its psychoacoustic synthesis are intimately tied with temporal perception; thus, in designing these audio works, the affective subject is always and necessarily presupposed. Crystallized within the media object is the supposed psychoacoustic body and the affective capacities of that body to hear between the speakers. To invoke the language of Wolfgang Ernst (2013), binaural beat audio is a “time-critical” media, where “exact timing and the temporal momentum is ‘decisive’ for the processes to take place and succeed at all.” Without its particular play of time, there is no binaural beating. Phenomenologically, to hear the binaural beat is to take part in a particular working of time on a microscale. Digging deeper into how the psychoacoustic perception of these microtemporalities is appropriated in the design of binaural beat audio requires a consideration of the interplay between the physics of sound and the psychoacoustic, phenomenological subject.

        Though Ernst is characterizing technological media, sound perception, apart from any reproduction technology, is fundamentally time critical. As Nuno Fonseca (2014) notes, not only do sounds necessarily “occur in time,” but they also have duration, either instant or extended: sounds always start in time, and sounds always cease in time. Moreover, the basic detection of sound, whether sound is heard or not heard, is contingent on temporal factors. As Fonseca points, sounds that last less than 40 ms will likely be inaudible. Beyond detection, sound localization is largely temporal — sounds are localized in space based on interaural time differences, i.e., the time difference between a sound reaching one ear and then the other. The distance of a source, as well as the relative speed and direction of a source’s movement, can always be ascertained via sonic clues, such as amplitude levels varying over time. Even environmental data can be garnered from time differences — a sound playing in a cathedral sounds different than the same sound playing in a carpeted room due partially to differences in room acoustics and reverberation time, i.e., the buildup of sound reflections and the time those reflections take to decay in the space. Thus, as Aden Evens (2005: 31) writes in his thorough phenomenology of sonic perception“just as sound compresses and rarefies the air, so too it compresses and stretches time.” The compression and rarefaction, as it occurs in time, refers to frequency. A sound’s “wavelength” is simply the distance from one compression to the next, and a sound’s frequency is inversely related to wavelength — the shorter wavelength, the higher the pitch. It is no wonder that prior to the “Hz,” the standard measure of frequency was Cycles per Second (CPS), where a “cycle” refers to a single period of compression and rarefaction. Frequency is merely the rate with which air is vibrated as a series of compressions and rarefactions. Thus, a 440 Hz tone is 440 compression and rarefaction series every second.

        Just as frequency is time critical, so too is timbre. Timbre, the “character” or “quality” of a sound, results from the distribution of harmonics in a tone. Thus, the sound of a pure sine wave (the “null” timbre, as Evens calls it) differs from the sound of, for example, a clarinet, largely due to the emphasis of different harmonics. While with a simple sine wave the listener only hears a single fundamental frequency, with a clarinet tone the fundamental, as well as intervals of an emphasized fifth and major third, can be heard, though of lesser amplitude. This is time critical most obviously in that harmonics have frequency, and frequency is time critical. But, beyond the distribution of frequency, timbre results from the “envelope” of a sound, i.e., length of its onset, its sustain, and its decay, and how these factors vary in time, where different harmonics sustain and decay at differing rates — all through the dimension of time.

        In the interplay between the physics of sound and the physiology and psychoacoustics of perception, time is the linking factor. Forming an “unstable tangle,” the various temporalities — micro- of frequency and timbre, macro- of duration and form — mix and meld in the translation from environmental phenomena, from vibration in the air, to the perception of sound (Evens 2005: 58). Thus, returning to the binaural beat, while two pure sine waves occur in the measurable world, the beat only occurs internally, in translation, in the passage from object to body. Never passive, Evens notes, perception is always affective: “the body behaves itself, acting on and reacting to its environment” (41). As is emphasized in the work of La Monte Young, perception is always and only creative, and, to that extent, per Fonseca (2014), “a sound,” as something that occurs out there and heard in here, “is somewhat a perceptual fiction.” Sound, as it occurs in the environment, is constant and dense. As the body attempts to make sense of it, detail is reduced, complexity “decomposed” in the myriad processes of auditory perception. One does not merely “hear” the sympathetic resonance of the tympanic membrane, but, rather, hears the resultant cognitive functions that allow the body to “effectively engage with the environment” — effectively and affectively. Sound in the environment is thus not merely translated as in the energy transfer from a vibrating microphone diaphragm to a vibrating speaker cone, but entirely transmuted: converted from vibration in the world to vibrating, non-cognitive, intensity in the body to neural-electrical impulse. Moreover, in the perception of the binaural beat, transmutation occurs on a different temporal scale — from microtemporal frequency to temporally normative rhythm. From the frequency difference between two tones, the psychoacoustic third tone envelopes the combination in an audibly beating pulse that varies along with the frequency of the initial tones. Temporally situated in this manner, sound is never static, but, much like the perceiving body, always becoming, always in action, between the body and stimulus. It is not just the mind that listens, as Adel Wang Jing (2012) writes, but the entire body is implicated in the process — unfixed, unstable, in constant flux and embedded in an evolving context. As an affective subject, presupposed and positioned by the materialities and temporalities of binaural beat audio, the listener listens in joint effort with the material itself, in “relations of movement and rest with [the] sounding materials” (Jing 2012). To use the audio-relevant language of Brian Massumi (2002), the body is a transducer, bringing together disparate materialities — from the transistors in the sine oscillator to the speaker cones of the headphones to the tympanic membrane and the cognitive functions of auditory perception — converting environmental vibration to sound actively, converting external material difference to internal immaterial rhythm. Intentional design around known psychoacoustic phenomena, the time-criticality of sonic perception, and the presumed affective capacities of listening subjects mark the passage from external stimulus to affective intensity, from a real outside to a virtual inside.

        With the above understood as an accepted model of auditory reception, it does not seem an illogical jump to assume that just as sound incites neural-electrical impulses in the brain, it similarly might incite brainwaves in sympathetic resonance via the autonomic mechanics of entrainment. Such marketing claims position the psychoacoustic subject — where auditory reception is a creative, yet not necessarily cognitive, act — as collaborating with the sound source and environment in the perception of sound. The discourse of entrainment promises to extend the effects of sound throughout the body and makes the binaural beat a catalyzing force in eliciting desired and designed mental states. Emphasizing this design aspect, binaural beat audio, unlike its claimed “analog” drug counterparts, such as LSD, and unlike traditional meditation practices, comes to the market wrapped in claims that it can elicit particular and exact mental states or enact particular effects, depending on the composition of the audio and the brainwaves which it is meant to stimulate. Whereas with LSD and meditation one must simply go where the drug/practice takes one (thus the frequent invocation to “be here now” in both the use of psychedelics and in meditation practices) [5], the discourse around binaural beat audio, including that which celebrates the precision of its production technology, positions its subject as finely manipulable, able to be entrained sympathetically (with an 80% success rate, per Straddling the line, as it does, between science and pseudoscience, medicine and alternative medicine, the discourse of binaural beat audio positions its subject at the intersection of science — via its implicit theories of electroacoustic physics and the psychoacoustic body, as explored at length above — and New Age heterodoxies.




[5] From Ram Dass’s (1971) Be Here Now, a guide to Hindu spiritualism that found much favor in North America.


           The binaural beat, irrespective of its promises for enlightenment, indeed performs an alchemy. While it neither turns lead into gold nor water into wine, the transmutation is impressive and finds exploitation in the mass of binaural beat audio available for purchase on the contemporary music marketplace. By appropriating this psychoacoustic phenomenon and relying on the time-criticality of sound and auditory perception, binaural beat audio crystallizes these factors, both internal and external to the body, into a meditative product, hardwired in the “mind machines” of the 70s, 80s, and 90s and “soft”wired in the digital audio currently proliferating in the marketplace. Bedecked with New Age discourses and imagery, straddling the line between science and pseudoscience, their commodification plays on longstanding tropes in the New Age market. Admittedly parochial in its scope, this paper has been an attempt to bring binaural beat audio into the fold of sound studies, considering, cursorily, its history as well as its design and the subjects it positions both materially and discursively. It is hoped that future work, of myself and others, will more deeply account for the history of binaural beat audio and its complex ties with the larger history of psychoacoustics, commercial-industrial research, trance sonics, and New Age marketing practices, as well as the connections of binaural beat audio to theories of sonic affect and sonic phenomenology.  

         Perhaps binaural beat audio can heal; perhaps the claims of I-Doser and others are true. Perhaps, in my own experiments with binaural beats, they have had positive effects on my IQ and general tranquility and have been partially responsible for this very paper. Perhaps not. While these claims may sell binaural beat audio packs, they don’t speak to the broader impact that binaural beats (along with Muzak and the work of La Monte Young, as discussed above) have on the body. Binaural beat audio emphasizes the activity of being-in-the-world, the activity of perception, the autonomic transmutation of stimulus to intensity that characterizes the very essence of existence in a concurrently material and immaterial world. To this end, what does it matter if binaural beat audio entrains the brain or accomplishes the litany of effects it so often purports to? Rather, of interest here has been the listening subject that the designers of binaural beat audio presuppose in their readily available audio artifacts: an affective subject, an active subject. Thinking with Massumi (2002), the borders between object, like the binaural beat, and body are blurry and “they ally in process” (p. 11). Neither finds stasis independently; in the interplay between the two, both become, actively. Binaural beat audio, in its becoming within the body, between the ears and headphones that resonate with pure sine tones, becomes a fertile ground in which to stake this claim. While this process of mutual becoming between environmental stimulus and affective body characterizes, in general, human experience in and of the world, binaural beat audio makes it precisely the point of its embodied experience. As designed commodity, wrapped concurrently in discourses of the New Age, of psychedelic drug experience, and of Western medicine, this interplay transcends mere effect and becomes a purchasable affect.




Anon. (2015). Ocarina Analysis.


Becker, Judith (2008). Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Binaural Brains (n.d.). The History of Binaural Beats.


Cannon, Martin (1992). Mind Control and the US Government.


Ernst, Wolfgang (2013). Ernst on Time Critical Media: A mini-interview.


Evens, Aden (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Fonseca, Nuno (2014). Soundscapes and the Temporality of Auditory Experience. Paper presented at Invisible Places, Viseu, Portugal.


I-Doser (n.d.). Binaural Doses for Every Imaginable Mood: Testimonials.


Jing, Adel Wang (2012). “Affective Listening: China’s Experimental Music and Sound Art Practice.” Journal of Sonic Studies 2/1.


LaBelle, Brandon (2006). Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.


LaBelle, Brandon (2010). Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture in Everyday Life. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.


Le Scouranec, Rene-Pierre, Roger-Michel Poirier, Justine E. Owens and Jules Gauthier (2001). “Use of Binaural Beat Tapes for Treatment of Anxiety: A Pilot Study of Tape Preference and Outcomes.” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 7/1: 58-63.


Massumi, Brian (2002). Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press.


More4Kids (2010). Digital Drugs – Is I-Dosing For Real.


Padmanabhan, Renjini, A.J. Hildreth and David Laws (2005). “A Prospective, Randomised, Controlled Study Examining Binaural Beat Audio and Pre-Operative Anxiety in Patients Undergoing General Anaesthesia for Day Case Surgery.” Anaesthesia 60/9: 874-877.


Physclips (n.d.). Interference Beats and Tartini Tones.


Rouget, Gilbert (1985). Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Rutz, Carol (2003). Experiments on Children.


Sconce, Jeffrey (2000). Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham: Duke University Press.


Seigworth, Gregory J. and Melissa Gregg (2010). “An Inventory of Shimmers.” In Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg (eds.), The Affect Theory Reader (pp. 1-25). Durham: Duke University Press.


Singel, Ryan (2010). Teens Using Digital Drugs to Get High.


Sterne, Jonathan (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press.


Sterne, Jonathan (2008). “Being ‘In the True’ of Sound Studies.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 2/2: 163-167.


Sterne, Jonathan (2012). MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham: Duke University Press.


Wahbeh, Helane, Carlo Calabrese and Heather Zwickey (2007). “Binaural Beat Technology in Humans: A Pilot Study to Assess Psychologic and Physiologic effects.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 13/1: 25-32.