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The effect of music on brain waves and altered states of consciousness

#May 5, 2022

Music is all around us, woven into the social basis of our lives. It is a matter of general knowledge that the rhythm of drums, various melodies and sounds of instruments are known in ancient folk medicine. Before modern science, this was known to the ancient Indian sorcerers who “cast out” evil spirits with drums and Tibetan healers who have a great influence on the spiritual life of their people with various tunes. Ancient cultures were very much aware of the effects of the action of brain waves. It is known that the repetitive rhythm of drums, various tunes and dances introduce North American shamans into a trance. It is also a part of the healing. It is recognised by Tibetan priests, Hindu doctors, and also by trained yoga masters. Hindu doctors – Babaji in India – use specially written songs and mantras to treat certain diseases. And – supposedly – have very good results. In ancient Greece, music was used as an educational tool and was believed to positively affect people. 

Of all the arts, music is the earliest available to a child, even before birth, because the sense of hearing, unlike other senses, is fully developed. Music affects a child’s overall development (physical, intellectual, and emotional), and all stages of development, as pointed out by many educators, linguists, and psychologists (Campbell, 2005). Despite many disagreements about the actual effect of music on human health, some facts are hard to ignore. Music plays a vital role in prenatal and postnatal development, because in this period of life, a person is most susceptible to influences and shaping, and everything done or not done leaves lasting consequences on the child (Mrđen, 2002). The prevailing view is that stimulations through music, movement, and other arts directly affect a child’s intelligence. Therefore, psychologists, coming out with seven types of intelligence, include musical intelligence among them (Živković, 2008). The actual effects of music on humans are manifested by changes in the brain’s electrical activity, blood pressure, pulse, blood flow, galvanic skin resistance, respiration, and muscle tone and are all measurable and scientifically proven (Rojko, 2004).

Charnetski and Brennan (2001) in their book ”Feeling good is good for you: How Pleasure can boost your immune system and lengthen your life”, present the results of their research on causing the secretion of certain biochemical compounds in the human body while listening to music. For this research, a 30-minute piano composition based on Bach’s chorales was composed. A group of 25 people listened to the composition in C major, 29 people listened to the same composition but in C minor, and 23 people sat in silence for 30 minutes. Each subject gave a saliva sample before and after the test. Analysis showed that sitting in silence and listening to the composition in the minor left the condition unchanged, while listening to the composition in major significantly increased the values of immunoglobulin A (IgA) in the saliva of the subjects, one of the most important chemical compounds in the immune system. The identical procedure was repeated with another group of subjects, which gave exactly the same results. They also conducted further research on the effects of listening to various types of music, sounds and silence in the subject’s immunity, proving that being in silence doesn’t change the state of the immune system, listening to uncoordinated noise damages immunity, and listening to music (in this case soft rock and light jazz) has a positive impact, which depends on how much someone likes the music they listen to.

How to penetrate the secrets of the brain and how to influence its work and development positively.

The first to take this more seriously was the German scientist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove (1803-1879.) Investigating the effect of low-frequency current on the brain, he concluded that it is possible to direct the brain and force it to accept different frequencies in both ears, but at the same time follow the third, the frequency that is the difference between the previous two, which is so-called ”phantom sound“. The brain begins to emit a signal equal to the difference between the two signals we brought to the ears. This signal is called binaural rhythm or tone. It works so that if we introduce a signal of, say, 100 Hz into one ear, and a signal of, say, 108 Hz, into the other, the brain hears a signal difference of 8 Hz. Using binaural rhythm in such a way, it is possible to adjust the brain waves to the desired level. This tells us that the brain can be influenced, and its work controlled. Robert Monroe also worked in this field. He showed in his experiments that combining certain sounds can cause modification of cerebral activity, leading to various changes in an individual’s mood; from states of deep relaxation or sleep to expanded states of consciousness (Filimon, 2010).

Changes in brain wave activity that occur during binaural wave perception do not occur only in the area of the brain responsible for hearing, or only in one or the other hemisphere, but the whole brain is involved. With waveforms of both hemispheres becoming equal in frequency, amplitude, phase, and coherence, which actually represents hemispheric synchronization (Gray, 2005). Therefore, looking at binaural rhythm from another perspective, it can be defined as a specific audio technique or training to change brain waves, which is confirmed by research that has established the effectiveness of binaural waves in brain wave training (Vukić, 2014). The benefits of using a binaural wave are reported by Seifi Alaa et al., (2018), who mention effects such as those related to verbal memory, relaxation, dual cognitive tasks, working memory and reduction of pain and anxiety. Seifi Alaa et al, (2018) in their study, examined the effect of a 7 Hz binaural rhythm on the change in brain activity within the cortex. Research has shown no significant changes within the cortex occurred during the first three minutes of using the binaural rhythm. However, prolonged brain exposure to the same rhythm (6 min) caused effective changes in the relative brain activity of the temporal and parietal lobes compared to the control group. It has also been shown that it takes at least nine minutes to stimulate the brain with a binaural wave to synchronise the entire brain’s neural network.

How do binaural tones work?

If we know that the brain is an electrochemical organ, then we know that it emits electro brain waves. They then control and direct our lives, in the sense that they affect our mood, our thinking, and our consciousness. 

Recent studies use advanced techniques such as fMRI, EEG and MEG. They confirmed that music processing is a service process that involves and connects different neural networks (Galinska, 2005). The right temporal lobe handles pitch as well as speech prosody. Rhythm is processed in the prefrontal motor cortex, cerebellum, and other areas. The limbic system, which is associated with emotions, processes both rhythm and tonality (Galinska, 2005). Robert Monroe, like his predecessors, noticed that our brain operated at different frequencies, depending on our activity, so they classified these frequencies (brain waves) according to brain activity as the brain uses them:

  • >40 Hz Gamma waves – activated when intense mental activity is involved, including perception, problem-solving, fear, and awareness.
  • 13-40 Hz Beta waves – activated when it comes to productive thinking, concentration, alertness, and learning
  • 7-13 Hz Alpha waves – activated when relaxing (while awake) or snoozing.
  • 4-7 Hz Theta waves – sleep with dreams, deep meditation.
  • <4 Hz Delta waves – deep sleep (“no dreams”), loss of body consciousness.

Given that the development of brain oscillations ranges from the lowest frequencies, which allow us to grow and regenerate to those that allow us to think analytically and act in higher frequencies, it is logical to concluded that if we want to extract the greatest possible potential from the person, we must bring this person’s brain to the state in which it acted most plastically. Plasticity of the central nervous system allows us to stimulate the brain to reorganise at the earliest period, with early stimulations. The function of the damaged part is taken over by healthy parts of the brain (Bošnjak-Nađ et al., 2005). Since neural plasticity is closely related to brain oscillations, bringing the brain to a state of lower frequencies of brain waves, those most prevalent in early childhood, can affect its ability to reorganise. In addition to tracking early development, slow brain waves, which include alpha, theta, and delta waves, have been shown to affect the production of specific neurotransmitters and hormones (Patterson & Capel 1983). ”For example, a 10 Hertz signal boosts serotonin production and turnover rates“ reports Kennerly (1994). Also, hormones and neuropeptides associated with lower brain wave frequencies affect memory, creativity, and learning abilities. Vukić (2014) states ”catecholamines, acetylcholine and vasopressin are just examples of beneficial hormones and neuropeptides produced at slower brainwave frequencies“.

Music and altered states of consciousness

The beginnings of music are related to the beginning of man and civilization, it was used primarily for ritual and religious purposes as a way of communicating with the otherworldly and as a guide to enter states of trance that allowed altered states of consciousness. Ludwig (1966) described altered states of consciousness as changes in thinking, emotions, perception of time, loss of control, the experience of the “unspeakable”, renewal and rebirth. Music appears to have the same forms of emotional processing, at least with respect to processing in the limbic system (Aldridge et al.,2006). It is important to define the terms trance and ecstasy in this context. Rouget (1991) makes a distinction between these two terms. ”Trance is always associated with a greater or lesser degree of sensory over-stimulation-noises, music, smells, agitation – ecstasy, on the other contrary, is most often tied to sensorial deprivation – silence, fasting, darkness”. In this sense, trance seems to have a more direct relationship with the body and its functions, while ecstasy is more viewed as a mental activity like meditation. Trance is a context-dependent phenomenon associated with the cultural meanings of symbols and activities during the ceremony. The function of music is to contribute to the atmosphere, evoke the group’s identification process, and induce (invoke) trance. This happens in accordance with cultural beliefs, and there are no common characteristics of music that cause trance. The overall trance music varies culturally (Rouget, 1991). However, rhythmic patterns seem to be particularly important. Drumming rhythms and light rhythmic stimulation can cause muscle twitching and unusual perceptual reactions. The drumming of 8 to 13 beats per second in various cultures is associated with the occurrence or may cause the occurrence of atypical behavior. Unlike drugs by which some achieve altered states of consciousness, music is not addictive. It is much easier to maintain clarity of mind and control during the musical journey. If something uncomfortable and threatening emerges from us while listening to music, we can silence it and turn it off.

As part of the Breathwork Method trainings we delve deeper into trance states and also teach the practical side of using music for your sessions (how to create Spotify playlists, how to stream them on Zoom and etc). Our courses is a great balance of theory and practice.


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