Lo-Fi Music: What is Lo-Fi? Why is Lo-Fi Popular?

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One of the more unusual subgenres of music happens to be a favorite of mine. It’s called Lo-fi, which is short for low-fidelity. 

Lo-fi is a subgenre of popular, avant-garde music that began to be recognized in the 1990s. Characterized by production quality in which elements usually regarded as imperfections are a deliberately audible aesthetic, Lo-fi can actually be broken down into further categories based on what kind of music is mixed into it.  

Why has Lo-fi become so popular? Well, let’s find out more.

Technically speaking, what exactly is Lo-fi music?

Lo-fi aesthetics are engineered undesirable effects, such as a degraded audio signal, fluctuations in tape speed, misplayed notes, environmental interference, or phonographic imperfections. They may seem almost amateurish with vocalists out of perfect tune or having audible hisses and distortions, or the music may overlay on spoken word that is broken or quiet as if occurring during the recording. But this is what makes it unique and desirable to many listeners. 

Some phonographic imperfections used in Lo-fi music include the distinct sounds of a record being played and the needle on it. The lower fidelity of a tape reaching its limit of residual magnetism creates a very light imperfection or distortion. Sometimes it’s caused by the audio signal being amplified to cause harmonic distortion. Effects include a decrease in high-frequency signals and an increase in “noise”.

“Non-phonographic” imperfections may involve noises that are generated by the performance (“coughing, sniffing, page-turning and chair sounds”) or the environment (“passing vehicles, household noises, the sounds of neighbours and animals”). 

Musicologist Adam Harper states that there are “recording imperfections” and “sonic imperfections [that] occur as a result of imperfect sound-reproduction or -modulation equipment … Hypothetically, at least, Lo-fi effects are created during recording and production itself, and perceptibly remain in master recordings that are then identically copied for release.”

What is the history of Lo-fi?

Technically, Lo-fi was born in the 1950s and 60s when garage bands would record music in cheap or quick ways using substandard equipment. Through the 1980s and into the 90s, Lo-fi really didn’t get its own category, but was folded into the sounds released by punk, rock, and indie rock bands. Indie music of the Generation X crew often included some forms of Lo-fi quality in their albums. That’s why even today, Lo-fi is connected to cassette culture. Back then it was considered primitivism or outsider music. Nirvana and Beck were examples of artists that used Lo-fi in their music, embracing not so perfect vocals and chords that didn’t always meld well together. When grunge went mainstream, they lost some of that Lo-fi style. 

The rise of modern digital audio workstations dissolved the major technological division between professional and non-professional artists. By the 2000s, the style of music experienced a rebirth as  a lot of “bedroom pop” and “bedroom producers” made their own music or remixed music samples from other people and purposely made the music sound “fuzzy” by using vintage equipment. From about 2010 and onward, enter the streaming age. And with that came a new form of Lo-fi which was tagged chillhop or jazzhop or Lo-fi hip-hop. It sounds quite different from the garage band indie music forms of Lo-fi, but it is essentially the adapted form. 

Lo-fi has found a major audience on streaming services, particularly on YouTube, where artists come up with a mixture of music, background sounds, and sometimes even pieces of spoken word. The videos can contain mixes that last hours and some channels have live programming with visually appealing repetitive video. I personally love playing it in the background while I study, write, or read. It’s relaxing for me and if I don’t like one channel’s version, I can always find another. 

One successful example of contemporary Lo-fi music began in 2013 and is still going today –  Chillhop Music out of the Netherlands.  

Why is Lo-fi so popular?

Experts say the appeal of lo-fi hip hop lies in how the tunes feel and what they remind us of.

Lo-fi has evolved into comfort music for people who need something simple, stress free, and relaxing. Some of the titles reflect this: Beats to Chill To, 2AM Study Sessions, Relax and Study Beats, Cozy Winter Chill Hop, Coffee Shop Radio 24 hour Lo-fi Hip-Hop, Happy Songs for Lonely People… 

Do you see the pattern? 

And there have been studies done that prove listening to Lo-fi for some people lessens anxiety and helps them focus on the tasks they have at-hand that need completion. One well-known channel in particular was listed in the research I found – ChilledCow. 

Rather than  a  comments section,  the  livestream  features  a perpetually  active  live  chat, which races past at high speed as participants interact with each other; as the title of the stream suggests, the majority of viewers appear to be studying either at school or university, and use the livestream as a tool to aid productivity in their work. By one reading, then, lofi hip hop operates as functional music, which serves a purpose for  students  or  workers  to  improve  their concentration  and  performance.  Based upon  the  topics  of  discussion  within  the  ChilledCow  chat,  in  particular,  a  number of  listeners  use  it for  exactly  this  purpose; we  observed  that  studying, deadlines and school or university work were among the most frequently discussed topics by participants in the chat, and it appeared that many users tuned into the channel specifically when they had work to complete. 

This is a form of ubiquitous listening – a passive inattentive listening by people who have grown accustomed to music in the industrialized contemporary life that further focuses the brain. However, not all of the chats are work focused. Sometimes, people come to these channels to just relax and let go of their stressful concerns. And these chats offer socialization without leaving the home or dorm that the listener is in. These channels provide a safe haven for those who listen and interact. They have things in common and they support one another. This is the opposite of what you will find in most internet chat rooms. Most of these live chats are moderated, have bots, and are kept clear of trolls.  

Toni Blackman, a musician, artist, teacher, and the first hip-hop ambassador to the U.S. State Department stated the following about her first experience with Lo-fi Hip-hop, “I felt like I had found home,” she says, remembering asking herself, “Are there other artists thinking like me, feeling how I feel?” “It’s a vibe. It’s chill but it’s hip hop.”  A lot of the music used is recycled from previous generations of hip-hop and electronic music, then it’s transformed with smoother beats, but given those purposeful phonographic or non-phonographic distortions. So the music might be comforting because it’s intrinsically familiar. 

Lo-fi has been connected with music authenticity, slacker/Generation X stereotypes, and cultural nostalgia. I can understand that. As a GenXer, I do often get a sense of nostalgia while listening to Lo-fi channels. I remember the steady crackle of an old phonograph’s turntable needle while playing a record that might’ve been dusty. I remember the sounds made when you pop in a cassette tape that’s been overplayed. I love the tiny bit of background noise that is allowed to infiltrate a Lo-fi recording. It’s the imperfection that is… perfection. 

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.