Have you ever paid much attention to the music that plays in bookstores? I only did it personally once I discovered lo-fi channels on YouTube. While it isn’t really the soft, usually lyricless music you’ll hear in the local Barnes and Noble, that’s what it reminded me of.
That got me thinking, since those places were great for students who wanted to study, what if I used that kind of music as background while writing? Thus began my introduction to the lo-fi music world. But what is lo-fi anyway, and why is it so good for focusing?
What’s Lo-Fi By Definition?
By definition, lo-fi stands for “low fidelity.” Fidelity is a synonym for “quality” in the music world, meaning lo-fi technically means low-quality music.
Before anyone gets offended by that, it doesn’t mean the music is terrible. Lo-fi typically refers to low recording quality, including background noise, audio imperfections, and mistakes made by the performer. The stuff professional music recording normally filters out.
As a musical term, lo-fi has been around for a very long time, just as the antithesis of high fidelity (perfect quality) recording.
Today, lo-fi music doesn’t just refer to a quality level or style of music, but an entire genre with a veritable family tree of genres spawning off of it. There are plenty of names for the lo-fi subgenre of electronic music but you’ll mostly see it referred to as lo-fi hip-hop or chill hop.
As a quick note, lo-fi music is not the same as ASMR. ASMR is sounds and music that provoke a physical reaction or relaxation, whereas lo-fi music is tunes and songs composed by artists that may include ASMR elements. Both can help you relax, which is where some of the potential confusion comes from.
The History of Lo-Fi Music
It’s hard, if not impossible, to credit the lo-fi music we know today to any one person. The modern version of the genre has roots in artists like J Dilla, MF Doom, and Madlib, but they aren’t the only contributors.
We already discussed that lo-fi, as a term, has been around forever, but lo-fi as a genre is fairly new. Elements of lo-fi music have been used for a very long time for commercial and artistic reasons.
The term “lo-fi” first came up in the 1950s to refer to low-fidelity music recordings. It was mostly reserved to refer to lower-quality music, particularly homemade recordings. Lo-fi was also used for songs that were recorded outside of professional music recording studios.
By the 1960s, homemade sound distortions of the previous decade began to be used on purpose. The Beach Boys were one of the first groups to include cassette tape sounds and distortion in their releases on purpose as an artistic choice. The popularity of the group and their music led to others also including those elements in songs, birthing the lo-fi movement.
Lo-fi again rose to prominent use in the 1980s thanks to DJ William Berger. He dedicated a time slot on his radio show to legitimate homemade recordings.
Lo-fi eventually grew out of just being a lower-quality recording and turned completely into a musical aesthetic. Indie rock bands like The Frogs and Beck adopted the sounds and static of lo-fi to add additional artistic qualities to their music.
Indie, grunge, punk, and hip hop artists all used the lo-fi aesthetic to enhance their music and add a different sound to their tunes as artistic choices during this time period.
The modern version of lo-fi music, more aptly-named lo-fi hip hop, also has roots that originated in the ambient house and chill-out music that was popular in London during the 1980s.
No matter what part of lo-fi’s history we look at, one of the main things it tries to remember is that music doesn’t have to be perfect. Mistakes by artists, static, and imperfections are all part of the journey and aren’t negatives. It doesn’t take perfection or expensive equipment to produce lo-fi music well.
The 2000s saw the birth of the modern lo-fi movement and the one we’re most familiar with now. Nujabes, the Japanese music producer, pioneered the genre through the anime Samurai Champloo. The series’ soundtrack created the slow-rhythmed jazz and hip hop beats that are popular to this day in the genre.
Because of this connection, lo-fi is inextricably tied to the anime community, a connection many artists and channels still pay tribute to.
Around the same time, people started having much easier access to music and sound-editing software on their home computers. Lo-fi music is rooted in the DIY music scene, where you can edit sounds and tracks together to create a song. Easy access meant more people getting involved and pushing the movement forward.
Music-sharing platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud also gained popularity during this time, making it easier than ever to get your music out to other people without needing recording contracts with studios. You could upload just about anything you wanted, including mixes from early audio-editing software.
The biggest popularity surge in lo-fi’s history came during the recent pandemic. From January to September 2020, Google searches for the term lo-fi rose by 85%.
Students were stuck indoors and had limited places where they could study. Most people were stuck at home, and remote work gained a lot of popularity and job openings. Because lo-fi helps you relax and focus, it became widely popular with students and remote workers as unobtrusive background noise.
I myself only became familiar with lo-fi music when I began writing during this time. I tried it out because I needed something less distracting than a TV and found myself having a harder time focusing when I listened to my normal music stations. Since it worked, I’ve kept at it.
As the genre became more popular, artists took it upon themselves to create their own stations on these platforms. Today, you’ll find quite a few 24/7 lo-fi stations streaming on YouTube that feature huge varieties of artists.
Each of those channels will run one or two constant live streams that act like a typical ad-free radio station and only play lo-fi music of a particular style. Studying, sleeping, and work stations are all popular and have live viewer counts in the thousands at all times. Each of these channels will also have a huge library of lo-fi song playlist videos to choose from, just like music apps like Spotify and Apple Music.
Both of those major streaming platforms have jumped on the lo-fi bandwagon. You’ll find many of the biggest live streams that started on YouTube also being broadcast on one or more of the major platforms, as well as extensive lo-fi libraries to search through.
What Are the Key Elements of Lo-Fi Music Today?
Lo-fi is a wide-ranging genre of music, but most songs that fall into the category will have one or all of these three main elements.
1. Repeating Drum Beats
Like hip hop and other styles of music, lo-fi music tends to rely on a looping bass beat to form the rhythm of the song. They are almost universally a downtempo type of beat, ranging from 70-90 beats per minute (BPM).
The slower tempo is a big contributing factor to the relaxation effects of the songs, but it goes further than that. Being slower makes it less disruptive to the human mind, which also helps make lo-fi great background music.
2. Retro Vibes
While streaming sites and modern music players don’t create a lot of noise that alters song fidelity, older mediums used to. Cassette players hissed, vinyl records scratched, CDs whirred, and all of them added some form of background static to the music.
Lo-fi today includes those noises on tracks as an artistic choice. It’s part of why most of the music has a retro vibe to it because it has the same sounds we would hear when we played music years ago.
3. Music Sampling
A big part of the origin of lo-fi was the sampling of music that came out of the hip hop genre. Recorded tracks were sampled, mixed, and looped to create something new out of those samples.
Lo-fi does a lot of the same things, though vocal samples seem to be rarer than in the old hip hop versions. Today’s lo-fi artists pull samples from various mediums, from popular songs to video games and animes.
Each sample is used to support and add to a song, overlaid onto the looping bass beat to get the feeling the artist wants. One of the reasons lo-fi feels so nostalgic is because the artists are sampling and using pieces from popular old things that are recognizable even if they’re altered.
4. Chord Progression
Another element used in a lot of lo-fi music is classical jazz chord progressions. These chords can be sampled and added from various instruments, including horns, pianos, guitars, bass, and drums.
Lo-fi music as a genre has a lot in common with both classical music and jazz tunes. At the core of it, lo-fi as we know it today is the modern version of those genres, creating a relaxing, slow, and unobtrusive style of music that works amazingly well for background noise.
Lo-Fi as a Genre
Lo-fi, by nature, is a bit amorphous. There isn’t really a physical location where it’s most popular, artists don’t tour and play for crowds, and there aren’t physical CDs or records for most of it. In a way, lo-fi music is one of the purest creations of the internet generation, making its own space in a digital world and being accessible anywhere, anytime.
While key elements tend to bind lo-fi tunes together, there are not many set rules for artists to abide by. That’s one of the things that makes lo-fi so popular among people with different music tastes; there’s some artist or style of lo-fi out there for everyone.
Most Notable Lo-Fi Artists and Where to Listen,
As perhaps the father of the modern lo-fi hip hop scene, it’s impossible to not mention Japanese music producer Nujabes in this section. The soundtrack for Samurai Champloo may have been the beginning, but his work on Cowboy Bebop was just as influential. Both anime saw radical success, allowing the soundtracks he composed to also become wildly popular. It became a huge influence on the modern lo-fi music scene and helped him get more of his music out to consumers on a mainstream level.
DJ Shadow experimented with lo-fi music in the early 90s, blending hip hop with rock, jazz, and ambient music to create a signature sound called “trend-hop.” While a pioneer of the scene at the time, DJ Shadow continues to contribute and collaborate with artists today, bringing the lo-fi trend-hop sound to other genres and working on his own music.
J Dilla came onto the Detroit hip-hop scene in the mid-90s and continued producing unique music through the 2000s. He was known for creating lengthy instrumental hip hop beats, with melodic loops and is credited with raising the artistic level of hip hop in the city. He added a level of complexity to his music that was normally lacking from the genre, layering in sounds and tunes.
J Dilla’s music is still sampled and used in lo-fi music today, with him being one of the major contributors to the origins of the genre.
Shlohmo is a major influence on the lo-fi hip hop scene, even if he is a fairly recent addition. His style of music is a blend of electronic synth and hip hop, creating a one-of-a-kind, hypnotizing version of lo-fi. Just as lo-fi has its roots in DIY music, Shlohmo began mixing music at the age of 14, eventually becoming one of the best-known creators in the genre.
Powfu is a prime example of how far lo-fi music has come since the late 2010s. The Canadian artist saw his single 2020 Death Bed (coffee for your head) surge outside of the limited lo-fi space and up to number 23 on Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart.
Where To Listen
Thanks to the popularity surge of lo-fi music in general, it’s not hard to find plenty of places to listen to and discover new music. Major streaming platforms have dedicated a lot of resources to the genre since the pandemic, making your normal music platform of choice a good place to start.
Some of the original places to listen to lo-fi music are still the biggest, though, with YouTube seeing millions of views and thousands of live viewers every day.
Perhaps the biggest and most popular place to listen to lo-fi music is on the Lofi Girl YouTube channel. The owner of the channel, Dmitri, is a French artist that owns both the channel and a music label that was originally known as Chilled Cow.
The channel began live-streaming lo-fi music in 2017, growing in popularity as the genre did. His use of the lo-fi girl picture on the streams became so popular Lofi Girl was adopted as the new name of both the channel and the music label.
Today you’ll find a massive music catalog in the channel videos, as well as two 24/7 live streams of lo-fi music, one for studying and one for relaxing. YouTube eventually apologized for a false copyright claim that caused the live streams to end on the channel, ending the streams at a combined 21,000 hours of stream uptime and 800 million combined views.
The channel has over 11 million subscribers and nearly 30,000 live viewers at a time. A concurrent stream is also broadcast via Spotify.
Another one of the main sources of lo-fi music on the web is the Chillhop Music YouTube channel. It sits at around 4 million subscribers and, like Lofi Girl, runs 24/7 lo-fi music streams.
Both of these channels are musts if you’re interested in listening to or learning about lo-fi music. The streams allow community members to interact while they listen, and both consistently find and feature new talent on their pages.
Beyond these two major sources, a simple search of lo-fi in the YouTube search bar will bring you to thousands of channels dedicated to the genre. Some are more upbeat and positive, while others bring a spookier, more mysterious sound to the table.
Individual artists also tend to have their own channels for broadcasting their music, whether on YouTube or SoundCloud. If you what something you like, it’s worth noting down the artist and searching for their channels to give the rest of their playlists a listen.
As the genre continues to evolve, it will only grow in popularity and scale. While modern lo-fi was popularized during the pandemic, it has plenty of space to grow as it becomes more of a mainstream genre and less of an underground music trend enjoyed by students.
Why Is Lo-Fi So Good For Relaxing and Studying?
In the surge of popularity lo-fi found during and after the pandemic, many people realized it seemed to help them relax and focus. But what about lo-fi music makes it such a good option for these kinds of activities?
It’s no secret music can enhance cognitive performance. A 1994 academic paper from the American Psychological Association Convention popularized the idea and backed it with real data, but also brought to light the fact that not all music is created equal in this regard.
It’s proven that listening to Mozart and other classical composers enhances focus better than some other genres, but modern styles have grown in popularity among students, with lo-fi being the premier option.
One of the key elements of lo-fi music is its slower tempo. A study by Montreal’s McGill University found that music listeners received a dopamine boost of up to 9% while listening to music. The benefit of that boost is that it relieves stress, making it easier to both relax and focus.
Study sessions for students normally come with quite a lot of anxiety, especially if the session happens to be on the eve of a big test. Stress and anxiety cause increased release of cortisol in the body, the main hormone responsible for stress. It’s also the main hormone that makes it hard to focus when you’re stressed out, instead drowning in anxiety.
Lo-fi’s calming effect and stress relief relieve the effects of those hormones, making it easier to retain information and reduce anxiety.
Listening to lo-fi music also helps drown out other distracting noises. It’s hard to relax or focus with jarring and inconsistent background noises like loud roommates or working in a crowded area. This isn’t unique to lo-fi music, but unlike most genres of music, lo-fi is uniquely suited to the job.
Lo-fi typically doesn’t have any jarring music notes. It also leaves out fast-paced and abrasive tunes, instead opting for slower, more relaxing melodies that blend together even when going through progressions. In essence, lo-fi is perfect for relaxing and studying because it can drown out distractions without becoming a distraction itself.
While I can’t find peer-reviewed studies that focus on the benefits of lo-fi music in terms of studying and relaxing, it isn’t a tough connection to make. Lo-fi music has most of the same qualities that other genres that are proven to help do have.
Classical and jazz music have evidence of enhancing cognitive functions, and lo-fi benefits from many of the same qualities. While music doesn’t benefit everyone the same way because people have different music tastes, lo-fi is a wide-branching genre that most people can find a beneficial playlist in.
For pure relaxation, it can be hard to find a better option than lo-fi music. The beats are calming and slow. In some people, this stimulates neurons and helps them find motivation and focus. In others, it makes you want to close your eyes and bob your head.
There are plenty of lo-fi music stations with all kinds of playlists. Study stations have slightly faster beats that do a better job of brain stimulation, while sleep stations are mostly made of music to help you relax.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.