It's almost gauche to express a platitude like "music connects us all", yet the universal nature of music is truly astonishing. It doesn't matter if you're a music maker tapping away on Native Instruments gear in a dark room, an aficionado with neighbour-bothering speakers or simply someone who just likes something pleasant playing through their bluetooth headphones – we all hanker after music. But why?

Kathryn Lawrence finds out that our brains are hard-wired to respond to music in certain predictable ways – and that we can hack our brains with sound...


Music can do some powerful things: make your toes tap, hips sway, or hack your brain.

No, this isn't about ear worms, which feel like a sonic DDoS attack. It's about using the power of music to change your brain state.

Throbbing 100 Hz beats may not be topping the charts any time soon, (but some people listen to weirder ambient sounds in the basement techno clubs of Berlin, and call that music...). These sound-based technological experiments are designed to change your brain state or induce different feelings: from subliminal messages in pop music, to binaural beats and ASMR, soft brain hacking tech is here with the power of music.

Mind Control Music

The trope of Mind Control Music describes music that can induce a hypnotic state or propel the listener to perform some kind of behavior through subliminal messages. Descended from stories dating as far back as the Sirens of Greek mythology, or the Middle Ages' cautionary tale of the Pied Piper, they illustrate the compelling power of music. But can it really hack your body and mind?

Fundamentalist Christian groups have long professed the belief that rock music influences bad behavior, going so far as to say that it causes teens to worship the devil. After the 1990 case against Judas Priest, who were sued for supposedly including backmasked messages urging suicide on one of their albums, psychologists have taken on serious study of whether subliminal messaging in music, via backwards messages or other means, is possible.

In a chapter of 2005's Psychological Sketches entirely dedicated to subliminal messages, John Vokey from the University of Lethbridge found "simply no evidence for effective subliminal persuasion in film or video, advertising, self-help audiotapes, or rock music, and there is certainly no theoretical basis to expect it."

Of course, the opinions of psychologists will never stop the endless tide of conspiracy theorists trying to find evidence of attempts at mass brainwashing in every new pop music release.

Katy Perry's most recent summer hit, "Chained To The Rhythm," while hilariously straightforward in its messaging about being self-aware of the mind-numbing effects of pop music always urging us to spend money, strive to procreate, and submit our wills to the machine of capitalism, may have a grain of truth in it.

A study presented at the 2012 Society for Neuroscience meeting found that groups that are exposed to the same rhythmic sounds not only move together in rhythm, but also think in rhythm together. Using EEG monitoring of brain wave oscillations, they found that after a short time their brain waves would sync with the rhythmic beat, peaking at the same time (this effect is also called brainwave entrainment.)

It may not be as obvious an influence as flashing signs saying "Eat popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola" but could be used to facilitate communication and cooperation among large groups.

Sound Waves & Brain Waves: The Science

There are five types of brain waves that most people emit regularly during normal brain activities (like living, sleeping, working, etc.): alpha, beta, delta, gamma, and theta waves.

Gamma waves have the highest frequency, from 40 to 100 Hz, and are important for learning, memory, and information processing. Next are beta waves, between 12 and 40 Hz, used for critical thinking, reading, writing, and socializing. Alpha waves, between 8 Hz and 12 Hz, are emitted when relaxing, and theta waves, between 4 and 8 Hz are emitted during sleep or creative activities. Finally delta waves, the slowest, between 0 and 4 Hz, are emitted during deep sleep, and are essential to unconscious bodily functions like heartbeat and digestion.

Essentially, the idea behind brain hacking with sound waves is that you can expose your brain to frequencies that will cause it to produce more of one of these types of waves due to the entrainment phenomenon.

And how do those frequencies get to your brain? Through your ears of course!

Binaural audio has been the focus of many studies (see Auditory Beat Stimulation and its Effects on Cognition And Mood States and Binaural beat technology in humans: a pilot study to assess neuropsychologic, physiologic, and electroencephalographic effects among others) that attempt to treat anxiety, depression, ADHD, or support claims of binaural beats for controlling and enhancing brain power. The theory is that when you play an audio track in each ear with a slightly different frequency, your brain itself produces a tone in between the two frequencies to compensate, and that in doing so, you produce brain waves of that frequency.

Although this effect has yet to be definitively proven, people use binaural beats to improve their concentration while studying, quickly achieve a state of meditation, or even produce altered, drug-like states.

ASMR & Braingasms

Another barely-explained audio-induced phenomenon that has been sweeping the internet is ASMR, short for the autonomous sensory meridian response. This formal name for the feeling, introduced in 2010, refers to a tingling sensation on the scalp, neck, and sometimes back, while listening to soft sounds such as whispering, paper crinkling, tapping, and many others. Often there is an element of role play, as other common triggers include hair cutting, massage, and other grooming-related relaxing activities.

Often recordings used to induce the "brain orgasm" of ASMR are recorded binaurally, so that users wearing headphones can hear the proximity and direction of the sounds, which enhances the effect.

And although many ASMR triggers are associated with intimacy, such as speaking softly or lightly stroking objects, members of the ASMR community insist that the experience is not sexual. For a non-tingler, these videos which are intended to help you relax, produce a euphoric sensation, or get to sleep faster, can seem fetishistic or unsettling in their specificity. But when it works, it really works, as evidenced by the almost one million subscribers to the most popular "ASMRtist" on YouTube, Gentle Whispering.

Soft Brain Hacking

Try it now and feel the power of music

While it may take some special circumstances, or a lot more research into how and why the brain responds to music and auditory stimulation, we know enough to make an effort towards designing music that not only feels, but also sounds good. This is the goal of the Sync Project: along with Manchester's Marconi Union, they are attempting to create the world's most relaxing music. Using a smartphone app which also measures your heart rate, the program called Unwind can help you relax and support their research into using music as medicine.

Marconi Union's song "Weightless" is said to be able to reduce anxiety by up to 65%, according to a study by Mindlab International. Attaching sensors monitoring changes in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and brain activity, they found that "Weightless" was more effective at calming the body than the other songs by 11%.

Inc.'s Melanie Curtin compiled a playlist of all of the most relaxing music used in the experiments below, so if you would like to enjoy some soft brain hacking, try it now and feel the power of music:

Permalink