It is like a comforting cup of hot cocoa on a dreary day. A soundtrack to the grind of everyday life. Steady and mellow but not distracting or harsh. Lo-fi music, also known as lo-fi hip hop, chillhop, and chillbeats, is a genre that seems to know how to motivate and keep the listener focused on their day-to-day activities without demanding attention. The imperfect soundscapes are warm, peaceful, and eerily satisfying. It is the perfect music for working, relaxing, studying, writing, reading, driving, or any continuous, distraction-free activity.
So, what is lo-fi, and why is it so meditative?
If I had to describe the music's characteristics, aside from using the hot cocoa analogy, I would first explain how it creates a simple, peaceful soundscape without putting the listener to sleep. The songs are short, not more than around two minutes long, played at a steady tempo of approximately 80-90 beats per minute (BPM). The average human heart rate at normal resting is from 60 to 100 BPM. So, it makes sense why this tempo works well.
Another notable characteristic of lo-fi is low fidelity. Over the history of recorded music, artists and engineers have strived for the perfect clean recording, free of distortion, background sounds, hums, pops and clicks, and anything else that might detract from what they were looking to achieve. In the digital age, we finally got to that perfect clean sound. However, many of us discovered that this could make music sterile and lifeless; it is too perfect. That is why many listeners turned back to the sounds of records and tapes. Those types of media had a texture that many found satisfying. Strangely, we started putting those sounds back in or dumbing down the song tracks to give it that same feel.
Another vital characteristic of the lo-fi movement is the beat, known as the boom-bap beat, often found in hip hop styles. This beat is a steady bass and snare that usually sounds like it was programmed on a drum machine or sampled from an old record. There are no crazy fills or in your face bombastic grooves. However, to create exciting variations, the beats drop in and out at different intervals during the song, and effects are applied to morph the drum sound. My personal favorite is when the song creator makes the drums sound as if it were played on a record player in another room. It gives the song an attractive quality, which brings me to artificial space.
The use of space in this genre is profound. In an age where music is becoming more in your face with little dynamics and a whole lot of compression, it is nice to listen to songs that create space between the musical elements. Some parts sound low and distant, while others feel like they are closer but not too close. This type of sound design is usually achieved with the combination of stereo and mono tracks, along with effects like reverb and delay, that make everything spaced out and more prominent but not louder.
So, what other instruments can be heard on lofi?
You will not hear vocal elements and other lead instruments that are pushed out front and demand the listener's attention. However, if these elements exist, it is usually buried in the song to keep that smooth unobstructed groove. I do not think there are any rules to the instruments used. Unlike rock and metal using electric guitar, country's overuse of acoustic guitar, jazz's horns and pianos, and early hip hop's use of record scratching, lo-fi is open to the use of any instrument; the skies the limit. I have even heard someone use an accordion. If it is played at a slow beat and does not detract from the song, it is fair.
I almost forgot another characteristic of lo-fi, the basic structure. Most songs use song elements like verse, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge, intros, outros, and solos. These elements or sections use motifs or themes that are about four to eight bars long. One bar usually equals four beats if it is in a standard four-beat count. The song is built around a few motifs with variations to keep it interesting. In lo-fi, because it is so slow and short, the song only uses one motif. It is one theme stretched out for a few minutes. This format might stem from our societies' declining attention spans. Creating lots of slow yet short songs that get to the point keeps our heads nodding, and then it is off to the next little ditty.
I love lo-fi. It is haunting and soothing with incredible soundscapes that move in and out. It keeps me focused on reading, writing, designing, and thinking. It even keeps me focused on mundane tasks like data entry. Lo-fi is brain food that is simple yet satisfying.
Brian Lundgren is a marketing professional, musician, and family man living in the Southeast region of Massachusetts.