How lo-fi became go-to study music

October 7, 2020 — by Jason Cheng

Those who enjoy early morning walks around the neighborhood or study late are all too familiar with the classic “lo-fi hip hop radio — beats to relax/study to,” a viral playlist with over four million streams on Spotify. 

Lo-fi is often associated with relaxation, and that’s basically what it is: calm, soothing music that’s easy to listen to. Yet, when audiences dig a little deeper, there’s so much more to uncover about what makes this genre of music a truly special gift to our ears.

Essentially, lo-fi is all about simplicity. The most aesthetic songs really only contain two or three instruments, whether that’s a guitar strumming chords or a piano scattered throughout the track. Most of these melodic instruments have subtle pitch imperfections to convey a genuine human feeling. 

Then the drum beat comes in, composed of a groovy kick and snare pattern along with simple, live cymbals known as hi-hats. Lo-fi producers tend to add “swing” to their drums, which keeps them slightly offbeat, adding extra bounce to the whole track.

Much of what makes listeners nod their heads is the bassline, a piece of the puzzle so often overlooked when discussing music. The bass is not always upfront in a song, but it’s the foundation for the chord progression, melodies and even the drums. 

Without the bass, a song feels empty, and it’s necessary to have something in the low end to make the song feel fuller.

These three main elements lay the groundwork for a standard lo-fi bop. What’s missing, though, is textures to make the instruments and drums mesh together. 

Possibly the trademark texture of lo-fi is ambience, the most prominent being the vinyl crackle. Other producers have used sounds in nature as well, incorporating chirping birds or flowing rivers in the background to propel listeners into another dimension. 

In general, this process of taking abstract sounds and blending them into tracks is known as “sampling” and applies to ambience and other aspects. An entire melody or beat can be sampled from another source, with producers chopping up a sample and adding unique effects to fuse with their own composition. 

Because of its natural and soothing vibe, lo-fi is perfect for relaxing settings, especially when I’m studying. Playlists seamlessly transition from song to song, and the soothing tunes in the background will enhance any tranquil environment. 

So the next time you’re studying at home on a rainy Saturday night, plop on your headphones and snuggle into a cozy blanket as you tune into the beautiful world of lo-fi. 

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