We wouldn’t presume to tell you what music to like. That’s a pretty personal decision. But whether you’re a rocker chick, a rhythm and blues dude, a jazz lover, or a pop groupie, you should consider a new music-to-work-to trend: lo-fi.

Lo-fi is not the name of a bar; it’s a genre

Although it would be a bar we’d like to hang out at (whiskey and work?) lo-fi actually stands for low fidelity, which means the music uses elements that are usually regarded as technical flaws in a recording with lots of background noises. It’s rooted in the 1980s and 90s, when indie rock and hip-hop artists embraced imperfections as a sign of authenticity (and hey, we could do with something that embraces imperfections).

But lo-fi as a genre really began around 2013, when lo-fi artists started mixing calming beats that borrow from hip-hop, easy listening, jazz, and elevator music (yes, truly).

It includes drum beats, jazz chord progressions, and often samples of vocal sounds and special effects to support the music. You’ll frequently hear rhythm and blues-style bass and drums, and sometimes guitar and horns, too.

Lo-fi turns boring into an art form

A lot of people accuse lo-fi of being boring, bland, and in one great phrase as “apathetic music to make spreadsheets to,” but the genre’s many fans tell you that this is precisely the beauty of it. It’s meant to be kinda boring and undifferentiated, so it doesn’t distract you from your work.

The point of lo-fi is that it’s just the right speed — slow enough to calm you down and help you overcome stress and anxiety, but fast enough that you won’t nod off. It’s like the Goldilocks of music-to-study-to: not too fast and stimulating (and potentially attention-diverting), and not too slow or sedating (and potentially sleep-inducing), but just right. It’s a soft, safe, predictable soundtrack that wraps you in a cocoon and protects your thinking from getting derailed.

It’s not a shock that COVID-19 gave lo-fi a boost. If there was ever a time when we wanted something safe and predictable, it’s during a global pandemic. COVID-19 left everybody frazzled and struggling to focus on work and study. Especially those with children at home. A shot of calming, predictable, and snug was just about perfect.

The lo-fi-work connection

No one’s offering a money-back guarantee that your productivity will soar as soon as you start listening to lo-fi. But millions of people around the world subscribe to lo-fi “beats to work/study to,” so they must be getting something out of it. Plus, there’s even psychological and neurological reasoning behind it.

Teresa Lesiuk, Director and Associate Professor of Music Therapy at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, explains that music helps you concentrate by improving your mood. Stress and anxiety shortcut your ability to think deeply. Your adrenaline and cortisol shoot up, triggering a fight-or-flight response that makes it hard to study or get work done. But the right music — like lo-fi — calms you down, reducing stress hormones so that your cognition improves.

Not bad for the price of a Spotify subscription.

Lo-fi takes all the ways that music affects your brain, and applies them in just the right way to help you focus. Lo-fi doesn’t have lyrics, so you won’t find yourself singing along instead of working. Instead, it has amplitude modulations, a kind of constant thrum or buzz that helps keep the music in the background instead of demanding your attention. Try singing along to those. “Amplitude modulations are helping you drown out background sounds while keeping the music at an overall even level,” says Kevin Woods, music expert and director of science for Brain.fm.

Lo-fi uses looping drum beats and repetitive sections that make it easy for your brain to predict what’s coming next. So yes, it’s boring on purpose. Music professor Victor Szabo says that’s so that “The listener can turn attention away from the sound and toward other things without being surprised or thrown off.” On top of that, lo-fi has nostalgic, soothing sounds like the crackle of an old-school record, making it the perfect background to work, study, or just switch off to.

The ultimate lo-fi playlist

Have we convinced you to give lo-fi a try? You can find plenty by searching for “beats to chill/study/relax,” but here are our top lo-fi suggestions.

  • Seneca B is one of the most popular lo-fi artists. Try her track Flowers, or stick a playlist on a loop.
  • Check out death bed (coffee for your head) by Canadian lo-fi artist Powfu, a lo-fi hip-hop hit which made Billboard’s Top 100 Singles chart in 2020.

Most lo-fi aficionados prefer playlists rather than single songs, because the point isn’t to listen to the music, but to let it help you tune out and zone in.

  • LoFi Girl (previously ChilledCow) is a favorite, with loads of compilations and round the clock lo-fi radio.
  • Chillhop Music, one of the top lo-fi channels, features top lo-fi artists with playlists of different lengths.

This is your brain on lo-fi

Picking music to work to isn’t just about your personal preferences. The music you love to rock around the kitchen isn’t always great for helping you focus on work or study, but lo-fi can be the perfect companion for focused, productive work time. Now there are no more excuses — you’ve got the work soundtrack to die for.