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1.34 AM: An Ode to Lo-Fi, Studying and Productivity

by Prashanthi Thota (‘23) 

It’s 2 a.m. Your head is deep into your notebook, trying to figure out ganglion action potentials and collagen synthesis and everything in between. Your roommate is asleep while you’re still studying because unlike you, she didn’t procrastinate and still believes in a 10 p.m. bedtime. The moon is peaking through the slit of your curtain, illuminating the walls and in your periphery, you notice a car pass by every now and then. It’s amongst the turning of pages and your pencil scratching on paper and your thoughts running rampant when you tune your ears to everything around you. You hear the dripping of the sink, the ambulance passing by, the buzzing of the AC, the voices of the people who live next door, the dinging of the elevator outside, the — 


You shake your head and rub your eyes. Pop in your headphones and find company with the girl who sits at her desk, bulky headphone propped on her head, writing the same two sentences over and over and over again with her hand propped to her chin and her cat staring out the window. You close your eyes. The scratch of vinyl, the soft beat of drums and distorted melodies calm you down, and you get back to work. 

Lo-Fi. What even is it? 

Lo-Fi, also known as low fidelity, is a genre of music that first appeared in the 80’s and 90’s, and has since grown to be a quintessential part of studying routines and the idea of relaxation. According to Masterclass, in 2013, livestreams started appearing on YouTube, the most notable being ChilledCow, who has streamed for over 13,000 hours to millions of subscribers (you may know her as the girl with the cat described in the beginning of this article). 

Most Lo-Fi music contains three parts: drum loops, jazz chords, and various samples of voices, from TV shows to snippets of other songs. These parts are combined to result in songs that are the perfect background noise for late-night studying sessions, coffee dates, a night-in for yourself, and more recently, vlog-style videos on the internet. Lo-Fi tracks in streaming videos are coupled with calming visuals, usually looped scenes from an anime, to provide a sense of nostalgia and tranquility for the viewer/listener. 

Does Lo-Fi, or music in general, even help with studying? 

It’s become a habit for all of us to pop in our headphones when we study. But does listening to music when studying boost productivity? 

The consensus is yes, but with a catch. A study done by Manipal University in Jaipur, India stated that listening to music while studying presents no adverse effects towards concentration. But, as humans, we are egotistic and believe we are good at multitasking, when in reality, it’s the opposite. This then brings up the concept of divided attention, when your attention is, well, divided between two or more tasks.  

Let’s look at a situation we have all been in before: you’re doing organic chemistry homework and listening to your favorite album. One second, you’re focused on the pages in front of you, dutifully answering questions and taking notes. The next second, you’ve put your pencil down and started singing the lyrics out loud, completely forgetting about the reaction mechanism in front of you. You catch yourself, go back to your work, and then keep listening to the song, and the vicious cycle repeats itself over and over again — suddenly, something that should’ve taken you 20 minutes is taking you an hour. 

That is why when you are listening to music, it’s important to listen to music without any lyrics. A study done by the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff stated that the words in music can “impair cognitive abilities when trying to memorize things in order” (Briggs). That’s where Lo-Fi (or any instrumental of your choice) comes into play. In a study done by Stanford, participants who listened to classical music had their brain activity measured, and scans showed that the areas of the brain that help with attention, memory and making predictions were activated. At the end of the day, if you do decide to listen to music, make sure it has no words and it is something you like to listen to. 

The toxicity of counterproductive productivity 

If you ever look at Lo-Fi streams on YouTube, they never stop playing the music. You see comments from people all over the world talking about what they’re working on and motivating each other to study. And while that may seem motivating, being too productive can be counterproductive at the end of the day. 

Toxic productivity, a term that has been coined in the past few years within the study communities of social media, is described as being productive all the time even though it is not necessary. We see it all the time on social media: 10-hour study-with-me videos (coupled with 10 hours Lo-Fi tracks), Instagram posts of aesthetic notes, TED Talks on motivation versus discipline, so on and so forth. We also see it in our daily lives: when you walk in the library at 2 a.m., and you see the same guy poring over his notes for the past week; people glorifying the fact that they only got an hour of sleep last night; filling up our Google calendars with so many blocks of colors, you don’t even know when the day ends. There comes a point when too much productivity isn’t even productive, but instead it ruins your mental, physical and emotional health. 

A prime example of this would be the 996-work culture in China: working from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. Many employees of big businesses and firms in China work over 300 hours in a month without any overtime pay — this has led to hospitalizations and even deaths for these workers. The government hadn’t said much in the beginning, refusing to acknowledge this epidemic since China “needs these workers to keep the economy going” (Yip). However, as more and more people have started to protest these working conditions, the government has started to work with companies to make working conditions and hours more manageable; for example, Vivo, a smartphone company, started to alternate between 5-day and 6-day work weeks. Even though it is a small change, it is a change nonetheless and will hopefully influence other companies to do the same. 

The Final Act 

For many of us, music is an escape; just like books, we can enter worlds that are beyond our imaginations and free ourselves from the shackles of reality. For me, listening to Lo-Fi (and other music in general) is a way for me to forget about the stress of my schoolwork and the monotony of my everyday life. It helps me to relax with what I’m doing, and overall, it’s something that is so ingrained in my studying routine that without it, I feel empty. However, I also struggle with knowing when to stop working and giving myself a break to avoid burnout — it’s a skill that takes quite a while to master, and three years into college, I’m still working on it. At the end of the day, sometimes I need to pop in my headphones, listen to the scratch of vinyl, the soft beat of drums and the distorted melodies, and close my eyes. 

Works Cited 

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