Sound advice for managing holiday season stress
Although the idea that music can affect how we feel isn't exactly earth-shattering news, the idea of empirically studying the whys and wherefores has only recently broken the scientific community's sound barrier. Brainwaves appear to play an important role.

Neuropsychologists are now studying how brainwave patterns respond to certain musical sounds and patterns (" brain entrainment")--and how someone's healthy brainwave patterns can be translated into musical sounds and fed back to their brains ("brain synchronization")--to help people become energized or relaxed and for other therapeutic uses.

What have brainwaves got to do with it?

A brainwave is an electrical fluctuation whose speed (frequency) is measured in cycles per second. Devices called electroencephalographs (EEGs) measure these frequencies, which scientists divide into five ranges: gamma, beta, alpha, theta and delta.

EEG readings suggest that listening to certain frequencies (heard as musical tones) can induce states of alertness and relaxation. The brain is most alert at gamma and beta, the two highest frequencies. In the alpha range you feel relaxed. In the theta range you experience deep relaxation. In the delta range you're in a deep sleep.

EEG readings also reveal that when we listen to music our brainwaves adapt to the rhythm, beats and tempo we hear. For example, at Stanford University's SiCa Center for Arts, Science and Technology's 2006 Music and the Brain symposium, participants noted that:

  • Strong beats stimulate the brain and cause brainwaves to resonate in time with the rhythm.

  • Slow beats encourage slow brainwaves found during hypnotic or meditative states.
So to help you relax, try listening to sounds that are designed specifically to slow down your brainwave patterns, such as vibroacoustics, binaural beats and music that's composed by your own brainwaves.

Vibroacoustic Therapy

Sounds that you can both hear and feel form the basis of Vibroacoustic Therapy (VAT). VAT blends relaxing music with vibrations of inaudible, pulsed low frequency sine tones. The combined sounds are recorded on a CD and transmitted to the listener through special transducers or speakers that are built into a recliner, chair, mattress or other object to vibrate through your body.

According to, research suggests that VAT lowers blood pressure and calms the autonomic nervous system. It is offered in hospitals, health care facilities, business organizations and private settings. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) Clinical Center has provided Vibroacoustic Relaxation Chairs for patients ever since a study conducted there in 1997 revealed that VAT helped them relax and alleviated medical symptoms. Listen.

Binaural beats

Another technique that can induce relaxation and even sleep is listening to binaural beats, according to research cited by Intelegen Inc. Two different but similar slow frequencies are presented individually to each ear via headphones. The brain automatically resolves the two frequencies, hears them as one, and adjusts its wave output to match the slow frequency. Listen.

Brain music

A new technology called Brainwave Optimization purports to create healthy, balanced states by synchronizing the brainwaves on both sides of the brain.

"Any kind of trauma can cause the brain to get out of synchronization," said Lee Gerdes, founder and CEO of Brain State Technologies, which developed Brainwave Optimization. "Until you get your brain balanced you can't get to a relaxed state."

Brain State Technologies uses EEG-based technology to map and assess individual clients' brainwave functioning. To return the brain to its balanced state, the equipment translates the client's balanced brain frequencies into musical sounds and plays the sounds back to their brain through stereo headphones. The brain areas that are out of balance synchronize in harmony with the healthy frequencies.

Since people perceive higher sound frequencies as higher musical tones and lower sound frequencies as lower musical tones, Brain State Technologies uses the same approach to translate brainwave frequencies into the client's choice of 140 different musical instruments and instrumental combinations.

Gerdes points out that Brainwave Optimization's approach is more personal than techniques like vibroacoustics and binaural tones because the frequencies that clients listen to are derived from their own unique brainwave patterns. Brain Dance: Listen.

Music's potential as an alternative to other therapies

One of the most promising benefits of listening to music as relaxation therapy (and as other types of therapy) is that it can offer a non-invasive, inexpensive alternative to drug and talk therapies. And you don't necessarily have to listen to an unconventional musical source: Dr. Andrea Weil suggests you can benefit from listening to whatever music typically helps you relax.

Of course, if stress becomes chronic and affects your ability to manage your daily activities, speak with and listen to your health care provider.