Music affects our mood. But can certain sounds also change consciousness? At least some people are looking for that kick.

Those who want to become intoxicated can smoke or swallow psychoactive substances. But it may also be completely different. Certain digitally generated tones, called binaural beats, promise to induce similar cognitive or emotional states as certain drugs. Researchers have surveyed how many people consume such tones – the effect of which is disputed.

A study recently published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review draws on responses from more than 30,000 people in 22 countries. The average age of the respondents was 27 years. About 1 in 20 of those surveyed had listened to binaural beats in the past 12 months.

The majority of these listeners (72 percent) did this to relax or fall asleep. About 35 percent said they wanted to change their mood. At least 12 percent say they listen to the beats to achieve a psychedelic effect. This means that listeners use the sounds as a substitute or supplement to the use of psychoactive drugs. So drugs that affect the nervous system and alter perception, mood, cognition or behavior.

A third tone is produced

A binaural beat is a sound illusion. It is generated by the brain when both ears simultaneously hear two tones that are slightly different in frequency. The brain then tries to reconcile the two tones. This creates a third tone – the binaural beat. “It is believed that this third frequency produces a range of effects,” explains co-author Naomi Smith of Federation University Australia. In terms of genre, the binaural beats are difficult to classify. Some tracks sound like a monotonous hum with brighter tones emphasizing.

Smith believes the beats could have therapeutic potential. “They can relieve pain, reduce stress and improve concentration,” she says. This indicates a potential effect to improve people’s mental health and well-being. However, according to the sociologist, more research needs to be done on this.

Christoph Reuter, professor for systematic musicology at the University of Vienna, has a completely different opinion. He says that binaural beats have “nearly no effect on the human brain.” They would not cause psychedelic effects, nor could they be used for therapeutic purposes.

Effects could not be proven

“The myth that binaural beats do something in the brain came from Robert Allen Monroe,” explains Reuter. Monroe founded an institute in 1971 with the aim of researching accelerated learning, lucid dreams and near-death experiences, among other things. To this end, in 1975 he patented the use of amplitude-modulated noise to generate sleep-like states. Binaural beats were not yet included in the patent. A few years later, he patented the use of binaural beats embedded in noise to induce specific mental states. “In research, the promised effects have so far been virtually impossible to prove,” says Reuter.

The scientist Vera Abeln from the Institute for Movement and Neuroscience at the German Sports School in Cologne takes a different view: it is true that the effect of beats on the brain cannot be proven scientifically in general. But: “For anxiety, depressive changes and sleep and concentration disorders, they seem to achieve good effects in some cases.” However, the effect seems to vary from person to person. An attempt to use binaural beats in therapy makes sense – after all, they are not an invasive procedure and probably have fewer side effects than pharmaceuticals.