Kids are home, offices are shuttered, and the news is a parade of horrors. That makes the pandemic the perfect recipe for stress and lack of productivity. It also makes it the perfect time for lo-fi music.
If you haven’t heard of the genre by name, you’re probably aware of the general phenomenon: streams and apps promising an endless loop of chill beats to study or work to are booming. One popular YouTube channel, ChilledCow, has more than 5.5 million subscribers, and The Verge has a whole report on how similar channels across the Web are seeing similar spikes.
If you’re looking to calm your nerves enough to actually get something done despite the world’s many distractions, should you jump on the lo-fi bandwagon? While many music critics scoff at the mellow, monotonous music (one annoyed writer dubbed it “apathetic music to make spreadsheets to“), enthusiasts and scientists insist the blandness is the point. For many people, lo-fi really does lull your brain into a sort of productivity trance.
This is your brain on lo-fi.
For dedicated audiophiles, Engadget’s Tim Seppala has a technical deep dive into the exact auditory qualities that make lo-fi so addictive. But if your eyes glaze over at the mention of amplitude modulations and spatialization, the basic idea is this: the wordless music peppered with nostalgic sounds like the “sizzle” of a vinyl record is neither so slow it makes you sleepy, nor so fast it makes you anxious. It’s neither so boring you forget it entirely, nor so interesting it distracts you from your work. Instead it gives your brain just enough stimulation to tune out stress and be productive.
The fact that people generally listen to lo-fi beats on an endless loop also helps create this relaxing effect. Victor Szabo, a music professor who is writing a book about the genre, explained to Elemental that the repetition in the music makes it predictable, soothing listeners further.
The brain can “easily predict on a subconscious level how it will continue to sound,” he comments. “The listener can turn their attention away from the sound and toward other things without being surprised or thrown off.”
The word both Szabo and other music experts use to describe the ultimate effect is “cocooning.” Lo-fi wraps you in predictable, soft sound, protecting your thinking from the unpredictable and harsh outside world. That helps you relax and focus. You get more done as a result.
No wonder these chill beats are suddenly so in demand. A snug, safe space where you can actually be productive sounds pretty appealing right about now.