Is lo-fi the new classical? It’s not so simple

Owen Peterson, Opinion Editor

Classical music has been long-heralded as the best music that one can listen to while studying, being the subject of innumerable studies for decades, but the rise of lo-fi music as a studying tool begs the question: Which is better?

Well, neither, it would seem.

A recent study in the Kwantlen Psychology Student Journal found that there was no significant difference between listening to lo-fi or classical music. In fact, the study even seemed to indicate that neither genre of music was actually any better or worse than silence.

What’s the point of all of this, then? Well, both lo-fi and classical music have shown to be better tools for studying than genres such as pop, rock and rap, and can indirectly improve studying experience depending on the person. First, though, some context on lo-fi.

Owen Peterson / Advance-Titan

Masterclass defines lo-fi music as “a subgenre of electronic music that shares qualities with downtempo music, the chillwave scene, and lo-fi hip-hop” that mixes “elements of house, jazz, easy listening, and hip-hop beats and samples with a DIY music aesthetic.”

While lo-fi music has been around since the 1950s, the now-popular variation, lo-fi hip-hop, often associated with anime and vaporwave aesthetics, came to prominence in the early 2010s along with YouTube, which provided a platform for users to stream 24/7 lo-fi stations.

Lo-fi’s popularity received a large boost in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shifted most schooling online, leaving students to find ways to adapt to completing coursework at home.

This proved to be lo-fi’s moment to shine, as the music provided the calming experience that so many students needed, especially during a time when students were increasingly reporting mental health struggles, with one report finding that 56% of surveyed students were worried about their mental health.

What, specifically, makes lo-fi stations good for studying, though?

First, the lack of lyrics. In terms of factors that impact how listening to music while studying can impact your ability to absorb and retain information, the presence of lyrics is one of the most detrimental.

Whether you’re reading a textbook, slides from class or your notes, having music with lyrics on in the background is essentially subjecting yourself to two completely unrelated flows of information, making it much harder for your brain to focus.

This clash of information has been shown to make students much less efficient at studying, as the presence of lyrics lowers their reading comprehension skills.

A 2019 study in the journal Experiment Findings on lo-fi music’s impact on studying that directly compared lo-fi with lyrics to lo-fi without lyrics found that subjects who had listened to lo-fi with no lyrics displayed significantly better recall abilities when tested.

A second reason it helps with studying is the slower tempo of lo-fi music. Studies have shown that music that is fast and loud (e.g. most pop and rock music) was significantly more likely to disrupt reading comprehension than music that was slow and soft.

In addition to this, music with a lower BPM like lo-fi has been shown to be more effective at alleviating stress and anxiety and putting you in a better mood. The better mood part is of particular importance, as improved moods lead to improved focus, motivation, endurance and memory formation, all of which are essential for studying.

Similarly, the volume at which you choose to listen to music while studying will impact your success, as loud volumes make it harder for your brain to focus on the task at hand.

Third is the predictability of the music. Slightly less obvious than the other two, this feature is all about how the rhythms and patterns in music impact your brain’s ability to focus and comprehend.

Essentially, picking good music to study to is all about finding music that can improve your psychological state without being too much of a distraction, and an important factor of what can make certain music distracting is the inclusion of salient events — defined as an “event is any specific sound or group of sounds that is an outlier from the previously heard sounds” in an article on by Sam Armstrong.

Salient events are detrimental to concentration because they force your brain to dedicate time to interpreting that information instead of whatever you are studying, which is why lo-fi, which utilizes a minimalistic approach and often uses loops, is great at not being a distraction.

These same characteristics, not at all coincidentally, also make up a lot of the reason that classical music has been the golden standard for studying for so many years.

Over the years, classical music has been lauded as the primary catalyst for improved studying ability for reasons such as slower tempo, use of motifs, lack of lyrics and general ability to stimulate the brain, so it’s easy to see how these two genres, which on the surface seem so opposite, have began to be compared.

Classical music’s connection to studying has also produced the “Mozart Effect,” a theory born in the early ‘90s that began with a research paper of the same name that found that listening to Mozart gives a temporary boost to a person’s spatial-temporal skills.

In the years since, the “Mozart Effect” has been the subject of numerous studies, and has been largely generalized to the idea that Mozart (and classical music in general) will make you smarter. This, in turn, strengthened the connection between studying and classical music.

In the last decade, though, lo-fi’s rise in popularity has now positioned it as the go-to music for studying purposes.

If you’ve ever looked for study music on YouTube, you may have seen the “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to” stream, one of the most popular lo-fi streams, which was made iconic by its visual of an anime girl studying in her bedroom.

The stream was created by the channel ChilledCow (now known as Lofi Girl) in 2015, and has remained popular ever since, peaking during February, March and April of 2020 (the early months of the pandemic). At the time of writing, the stream has maintained anywhere from 25 to 50 thousand concurrent viewers.

Since its conception, lo-fi has been connotated with relaxing and studying, and this bond does not seem to have any intention of breaking.

At the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy classical or lo-fi music, listening to playlists of that genre will not magically help you. As I alluded to earlier, mood is imperative in studying effectively, so it’s all about finding something that puts you in the right mindset while not impairing your comprehension, whatever that may be.