For the last year or so, it’s been the best-kept concentration secret among young people: If you need to study, then it’s a lo-fi hip-hop playlist you seek.
It’s a phenomenon born on YouTube, which is just as popular for music discovery as it is for beauty tutorials or long-winded, semi-sincere apology videos. The two most popular lo-fi streams on YouTube have millions of subscribers, with thousands of people tuning in at any given time, and both have “study” in their titles. Usually paired with some serene, calming visuals, the channels—which broadcast morning, noon, and night, the most prominent tended to by a mysterious DJ who doesn’t grant interviews—the act of studying, concentrating on a task, or otherwise working is now inextricably linked to lo-fi. It’s now so associated with productivity that Spotify’s “Lo-Fi Beats” playlist, which recently surpassed 1 million subscribers, describes itself as “beats to relax and focus.”
For those that don’t spend all their waking hours on YouTube, lo-fi is a distinct version of hip-hop that, outside of its flagship YouTube channels, has crept into the larger hip-hop canon in recent years. It’s separate from lo-fi rock, which prides itself on the charming grit of minimal production. Lo-fi hip-hop, often just called “lo-fi,” refers to hip-hop built on more traditional music styles like jazz and blues, buttressed by elements like drum machines, but all taken down a notch. There’s often a strong musicality to lo-fi tracks, and virtually no vocals—it’s all soft beats, muted brass, and light piano tinkling. You can hear lo-fi’s influence on popular albums like the Black Panther soundtrack, which gave us radio hits like “All the Stars” and “Pray for Me” early in 2018.
However, using lo-fi YouTube channels to speed along study sessions has been an underground phenomenon until very recently. Now that the secret’s out, it’s worth asking: What is it about lo-fi hip-hop specifically that make so many people swear by it when it comes to concentration?
In earlier decades, classical music was the go-to background music. Although there’s lots of context to consider, studies have shown that both humans and rats show better performance on spatial-reasoning tasks after taking in some Mozart. They’ve also repeatedly shown that music with vocals is far more distracting than music that doesn’t include a vocal track, and if lo-fi includes vocals at all, it rarely rises above a library voice.
For decades, the reasoning for classical music’s status as the standard “studying” music is that classical and orchestral music, well, makes us feel smart. As the music scholar Estelle Jorgensen writes in the Philosophy of Music Education Review, western audiences tend to consider classical music “smart” music due to its complexity, so it would make sense to use it while performing tasks designed to make us smarter, more accomplished humans. Lo-fi tracks widely sample from jazz, blues, and orchestral styles, and often include repeating bars of piano, strings, and wind instruments. When we hear a lo-fi track, with its many layers of production and instruments that signify “smart” to us, we may, consciously or unconsciously, feel smarter, thus making us feel like we’re accomplishing more than usual.
Rhythm is also a key factor. Humans interpret musical rhythm as motion, the musicologist Judy Lochhead notes in a 1990 article for Theory and Practice. Literal songs about work, “Sixteen Tons,” “Working in the Coal Mine,” and “Powerhouse” (the song that plays under assembly-line scenes in Looney Tunes) often emphasize a steady beat. “Lo-fi hip-hop” is a bit of a misnomer. Musically, the genre has more in common with R&B and jazz than it does with rap, but it does have the classic, steady beat that hip-hop began with. We may gravitate toward it as a study aid to “drive” us toward our goal of finishing our work.
However, there’s not a lot of scientific data to back up the idea that listening to music while working fundamentally affects how well we retain knowledge. The president of Muzak, which was originally intended to invigorate flagging workers, once asserted that background music works its magic by making the worker feel better. The better the morale, the more likely they are to want to work. And the rise of lo-fi also coincides with the rise of hip-hop in general: Acts like Cardi B, Kendrick Lamar, and Migos have joined glitzy pop acts like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé as go-to festival headliners, bankable brand names.
Once a Week
And while hip-hop spent much of its first few decades being maligned in the media as materialistic and shallow, the more progressive and experimental figures in the genre are getting their due these days: Pulitzer Prize-winning rappers, socially-conscious tracks like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” going viral, and, arguably, more recognizable female MCs than ever before—these are the new normal. So it could just be that it’s a popular genre that’s been subdued enough not to interfere with the task at hand.
But there are lots of genres that feature classical instruments, don’t use vocals, and keep a steady beat. Why hip-hop? It’s important to remember that most people who need to cram for tests are under the age of 25, and are very plugged into music trends. To high schoolers and undergraduates, chill beats are way cooler than Bach.