Being awake during an operation in which you’re given local—not general—anesthesia can be nerve-wracking.

But did you know that you have the ability to reduce your anxiety without (hardly) lifting a finger or spending lots of money?

You’ve probably heard that listening to music mixed with nature sounds may help keep you calm, but new research finds that listening to something else in addition to that may help even more.

What’s the mysterious sound that we’re talking about?

We’ll tell you in a minute…


A few years ago, researchers evaluated the effects of something called binaural beat audio therapy. It’s when you listen to one sustained tone in your right earphone and a different sustained tone in your left earphone simultaneously—and each tone is at a slightly different frequency than the other. (If you listen to the tones without earphones, such as through a stereo, each tone would come from a different speaker.) To both ears, the combined beats tend to sound like a single, vibrating tone. Prior research has indicated that this sound triggers alpha-frequency brainwaves, which can reduce fear and pain perception and induce feelings of relaxation.

Researchers wanted to see whether binaural beats mixed with music (such as melodies and rhythms) and nature sounds (such as the sounds of waterfalls, birds, oceans, rivers and forests) would relax patients undergoing surgery more than the same audio mix of music and nature sounds without the binaural beats…or more than no audio at all. They referred to their three groups of test subjects as “the binaural/music group,” “the music group” and “the control group.” Researchers decided to work with patients having cataract surgery because it’s one of the most common operations done worldwide and because it requires local (not general) anesthesia, so a patient remains awake throughout the procedure.

Patients’ anxiety levels were measured in three ways—through a blood pressure measurement…a heart-rate measurement…and self-reported feelings of anxiety.


Blood pressure: The control group’s blood pressure went up during surgery, indicating rising anxiety. In contrast, blood pressure actually fell (in a healthy way) during surgery for both the binaural/music group and the music group—with the music group’s pressure falling the most. So in this category, the music group (with no binaural beats) did best.

Heart rate: The control group’s heart rates rose during surgery, indicating anxiety. Again, in contrast, heart rates fell in both the binaural/music group and the music group—but in this case, the binaural beats group did much better.

Self-reported anxiety: Right after the surgery, patients were asked to report how anxious they had felt during the surgery. The binaural/music group did best by far.

In other words, listening to music combined with nature sounds may help you relax during surgery, but hearing those sounds with binaural beats may help you relax during surgery even more.

In a more recent study that has not yet been published, the same researchers studied the beneficial effects of binaural beats added to music without nature sounds. Subjects listened to white noise…traditional Thai songs mixed with binaural beats…or the same Thai songs without binaural beats…while their brain activity was measured. Results showed that alpha brainwave duration increased when subjects listened to songs with binaural beats compared to songs without the added beats.


According to lead study author Pornpattana Vichitvejpaisal, MD, almost anyone having surgery with local anesthesia could benefit from the soothing effects of binaural beat audio, and the fact that it’s low-cost and noninvasive makes it easy to try. There were no adverse side effects seen in his study. The only types of people he excluded from his study were those with epilepsy, those with blood pressure over 160/100 and those with hearing problems or ear infections—anyone in those groups should consult a doctor before trying binaural therapy to make sure that it’s safe and likely to be effective.

The cheapest and easiest way to listen to binaural beats mixed with music and nature sounds is to go online and grab the sounds off of YouTube (on the site, search for “binaural beats, music, nature”). For example, if you can use a smartphone and have Internet access during surgery, you could stream an audio track from YouTube to your phone while wearing earphones. Simply press “play” as your surgery begins.

If you aren’t allowed to do that during surgery (or if you don’t want to have to rely on an Internet connection), you can download and save a file on your smartphone or MP3 player ahead of time. If you’d prefer to do the latter, buy a digital audio track or CD of binaural beats mixed with music and nature sounds. Many companies sell them—for example, there are hour-long files on for about $1 apiece.

Lots of us listen to music to help us relax during “awake” surgery these days—so why not try binaural beats along with it? This study shows that it’s hard to…well…beat.