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Walking through the library during the exam period, simply searching for your own study spot, makes it quite clear what the opinion of most Groningen students on joining music and studying together is. Headphones and earphones are omnipresent in the study areas just as much as they are present at gyms; allowing everyone to immerse in their music of choice to help them perform the task at hand better. Such a pattern can be seen as a symptom of today’s so-called ‘iPod culture’, in which the habit of mobile listening allows one to privatize space and time (1), tailoring it to their own needs; but at the same time, the continued growth of its prominence may suggest there are more advantages to studying, working or exercising with music than simply a sense of self-controlled privacy.
YouTube and Spotify playlists such as “Lofi Hip Hop Radio: Beats to Relax/ Study to” and “Lofi hip hop radio-chill/ study beats” (or, more traditionally, “Mozart - Classical Music for Brain Power”) are swarmed with views, mostly from stressed college and university students in their exam periods. At the same time, multitasking and any kind of sensory overload are never recommended to improve focus and efficiency: so wouldn’t we be better off being productive in silence?
The iPod culture might have only started with the 21st century, but background music has been a concern of workplaces (as well as restaurants or shopping venues) already in the 1930s and 1940s; not to mention there are ideas of songs lifting up the workers’ spirits dating back even to Ancient Greece: such as “the sound of whistles, of flutes and fifes to encourage the work-folk” in Aristophanes’ Acharnians (2). Perhaps the most prominent industry attempting to control moods with music was American Muzak. Drawing on multiple artists’ work, the brand released recordings for all sorts of settings, from lounges to factories. Some of their albums meant to relax, other to make one spend more; or to effectively boost one’s productivity. For this last purpose, the company came up with Stimulus Progression; a remedy for the “industrial efficiency curve”, or more commonly called “fatigue curve”. The tunes were sorted by mood (from Gloomy to Ecstatic) and chosen exactly to stimulate energy when it was at the lowest; at the same time combat monotony in periods of hyperactivity. Reports of the effectiveness of Muzak’s invention included a reduction in stress, better concentration and work results: for both factory and office workers (3).
Would Muzak be one’s best call to get productive with nowadays too? At least when trying it out myself, no miraculous effects faced me; close to no one seems to use Stimulus Progression when working these days probably for a reason. This reason could be our current ability to customize our own study playlist without having to rely on ready-made background music, the change in music tastes; or simply, the availability of an alternative.
Despite having a possibility to play their favorite music while studying, the aforementioned “study playlists” or “study streams” especially of the lofi (low fidelity) hip hop/ chillhop genre (as explained by Ryan O’Halloran, “a slightly more rugged flavour of general hip hop” (4)) with looped animations of focused people or adorable raccoons working tirelessly gain millions of views; and according to their comment sections, help countless young adults study and pass their exams. The music itself is rather monotonous, downtempo, foregrounding the beat; with a “muffled drum machine pitter, a few lazy nocturnal synth beams, perhaps an entranced, elliptical vocal sample sourced from self-help tapes, ancient cartoons, Nintendo 64 games, or public-access flotsam” (5); plus the unavoidable lofi element of vinyl-like crackles (4). It has been be argued the appeal of this sort of playlists lies in their direct reference to the nostalgia for beats and aesthetic of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and Toonami, or the importance of the moving image of productivity, or the ease with which this kind of calm, repetitive music blends into the background (5).
Such claims so far, are not a result of any academic studies; however, the researches made before on music and focus, music and mood control, as well as music and memorizing can be of guidance when understanding the phenomenon of lofi study music streams from their auditory side. So far, it has been argued that:
Listening to music before a task can improve attention and memory (6);
Liked and disliked music with vocals/lyrics are both equally distracting during a task (6);
Emotionally neutral music has a better effect on memory for those with previous musical training, while subjectively pleasurable music works better for those without it (7);
Music with simple musical structures and without lyrics can boost productivity especially on repetitive tasks, for those used to working with music and having control over the music they choose to listen to (8);
Last but not least, music can block off undesired sounds in the environment that could potentially be distracting to conscious attention: such as someone sniffing, whispering or typing on their laptop as it often happens at the library (9).
This is just a part of the relevant research; however, it can begin to point towards the source of lofi hip-hop popularity. Instrumental, simple, background, indistinct, and rather neutral but at the same time pleasurable, the streams seem to play into most, if not all, requirements for music successfully blocking off outward noise, boosting productivity, while at the same time is hardly distracting. The nostalgic elements of the playlists make sure the beats blend right in with what we are used to, not drawing too much attention, and the loop of studying characters are relatable, motivating, and just the right visual fit for the music. Although, or perhaps because the lofi streams don’t seem to follow the Stimulus Progression ideas Muzak suggested, rather sticking around the neutral/ a bit down mood levels, they work better for our generation.
After all, it’s common we start studying already stressed, somewhere in the middle of the fatigue curve: what we need isn’t just stimulating energy and motivation, but also relaxation, and a chill study environment of our own in the pacing world.
Bull, Michael. “No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening”. Leisure Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4. Routledge, 2005. http://asounder.org/resources/bull_nodeadair.pdf.
Aristophanes. The Acharnians. Project Gutenberg Etext, 2002. http://www.dominiopublico.gov.br/download/texto/gu003012.pdf.
Lanza, Joseph. Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong. University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Alemoru, Kemi. “Inside YouTube’s calming ‘Lofi Hip Hop Radio to Relax/Study to’ community”. Dazed Digital, 2018. http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/40366/1/youtube-lo-fi-hip-hop-study-relax-24-7-livestream-scene.
Winkie, Luke. “How 'Lofi Hip Hop Radio to Relax/Study to' Became a YouTube Phenomenon”. Vice, 2018. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/594b3z/how-lofi-hip-hop-radio-to-relaxstudy-to-became-a-youtube-phenomenon.
Perham, Nick. “Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?”. Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 4. Wiley Online Library, 2011. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/acp.1731.
Klemm, William R. “Does music help memory?”. Psychology Today, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/memory-medic/201312/does-music-help-memory.
Haake, Anneli B. “Music at work: distracting or beneficial?”. Music at Work, 2011. http://musicatwork.net/music-at-work-distracting-or-beneficial/.
Burnett, Dean. “Does music really help you concentrate?”. The Guardian, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/aug/20/does-music-really-help-you-concentrate.