Have you ever heard of Lo-fi music? Chances are high since the genre has rapidly increased in popularity over the last two years. Videos with titles like “1 A.M Study Session – lofi hip hop/chill beats” have gained millions of views and are extremely popular among students. This boom came out of nowhere; the roots of Lofi music go way back to the 1950s.
Since then, the definition and style of Lo-fi (low fidelity) music has changed quite a bit. The first time Lo-fi music entered a dictionary was in 1976; in the English Oxford Dictionary, it was defined as “sound production less good in quality than ‘hi-fi’” – a very vague definition. So Lo-fi started as music produced with lower sound quality and audible imperfections. The background noises in the recordings are still one of the most prominent characteristics of Lo-fi music. While nowadays, the iconic background noises are often added afterward, they originally were a result of home recording and are regarded as a sign of “authentic” music.
In 2003, the Oxford Dictionary added a second definition for the term—”a genre of rock music characterized by minimal production, giving a raw and unsophisticated sound”, which mirrors the increase of punk and indie artists, who started producing music at home and therefore contributed to the increasing popularity of raw, imperfect sounds. Bands like Guided by Voices, were the pioneers of Lo-fi.
Then, more and more music from different genres like jazz or hip hop was implemented into the Lo-fi culture, and rock music stopped being so prevalent in the genre. In 2008, another definition of Lo-fi music was added: “unpolished, amateurish, or technologically unsophisticated, esp. as a deliberate aesthetic choice.” By now, the low sound quality had long stopped being a by-product of homemade or DIY music. It became a style of itself.
Today the main characteristics of Lo-fi music, besides the intended imperfections like a scratching record or static noises, are drum loops, jazz chords, and samples. The drum loops form the chill rhythm and are usually between 70-90 beats per minute, which means they are in the low- to the mid-tempo range. While Lo-fi has its roots in punk, indie rock, and hip-hop music, jazz chords have become an essential part of Lo-fi culture. The little bits and pieces of jazz incorporated into the Lo-fi tracks are supposed to create a relaxed, thoughtful vibe and add to the retro aesthetic, which is an excellent part of the Lo-fi theme. Even though a significant portion of Lo-fi music is instrumental, some artists use sampling or other effects to underline the music and switch it up. Especially in the last years, it has become common to not only use vocal samples from pre-existing songs or record them yourself but to take small dialogues from anime shows. Lo-fi music and anime are strongly interconnected now, and this also shows in the Lo-fi illustrations often used as a thumbnail for YouTube playlists. While favorite channels like Chillhop Music or Lofi Girl (formerly known as ChilledCow) create their music, others remix anime soundtracks as Lo-fi music. As it can be seen, Lo-fi music has quite a history, resulting in a broad palette of subgenres. So, if there is such a high demand for Lo-fi music, one might wonder why.
The primary audience of Lo-fi music these days is students. During the last years, Lo-fi playlists with names like “1 A.M Study Session – lofi hip hop/chill beats” have become extremely popular and are said to improve concentration and enhance productivity.
Like classical music used for studying, Lo-fi creates a soundscape shaped by relatively slow (mostly) instrumental music. There have been years of research proving that slow instrumental music can improve the ability to focus.
In the 1990s, research by the New York Academy of Science found a “Blur Effect” – it proved that kids were doing better at tests while listening to music they genuinely enjoyed. On the one hand, this is related to the rise of serotonin and dopamine levels; If we are in a good mood, we can be more productive – this can work with any music. Just try to avoid songs with lyrics since they can distract you. On the other hand, the “Blur Effect” works because the music drowns any distracting background noise, making it easier for us to focus on whatever activity.
In addition to increasing our concentration, Lo-fi music can also be highly relaxing and thus is also liked as “chill out” music. The calm beats boast a restorative system and reduce cortisol levels responsible for anxiety and stress. This can improve your overall mood and help you use your time more effectively since stress lowers your productivity.
While there are few studies about the effects of specifically Lo-fi music on us, many studies examine the effectiveness of elements used in Lo-fi music. You could technically achieve the same outcomes by listening to classical music – if you enjoyed it just as much. Since everyone has their preferences when it comes to music, the impact of Lo-fi on your body and mind can significantly differ from others’ experiences, but I think it is worth a try, at least. I can say that I love listening to Lo-fi music and have seen a significant improvement in my concentration since I started doing that.