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Making the perfect work/study/chill playlist is the finest of arts, which is why, TBH, I’ve largely stopped trying. Don’t get me wrong — I still have a “what I’m listening to now” playlist, a generic workout playlist, and a go-to driving playlist. But when it comes to my workday playlists (i.e., the music I’m listening to while I’m reading, working, or even trying to relax), I leave that up to the experts who put together lo-fi and ambient music mixes on YouTube.
For the uninitiated, lo-fi is short for “low-fidelity,” a subgenre of electronic music that’s characterized by a “professional or flawed sound quality,” causing it to sound fuzzy. Lo-fi “has roots in instrumental hip-hop, lounge, house, and downtempo pop,” Victor Szabo, an assistant professor of music at Hampden-Sydney College and author of a forthcoming book on the history of the ambient music genre, says, and the genre surged in popularity in the late 2010s and early 2020s. If you’re not already a lo-fi fan, take a second and search the term on YouTube to see just how popular this genre is right now. Listeners have hundreds of recently added mixes to choose from, plus old favorites with view counts up in the millions. These curated streams, which are available as YouTube videos or playlists on streaming services like Spotify, make the music convenient to listen to indefinitely, Szabo tells POPSUGAR.
Ambient music is consumed in a similar way — in hours-long video streams or playlists — but is a “stylistically distinct genre,” Szabo says. It’s grown from New Age, psychedelic rock and pop, jazz, and experimental classical music. It has a more classical feel when you listen to it, as opposed to the slow hip-hop beats of lo-fi. While ambient hasn’t experienced this same explosion in popularity as lo-fi, both genres “fit under the umbrella of what I call ‘ambient audio,'[which is] atmospheric audio sold or framed as a personal medium for contemplation and calm,” Szabo says.
If you’re wondering if the music can also help with anxiety and stress, experts say it’s possible. While it’s unlikely that lo-fi ambient music can address any mental health issue at the root, it “can certainly affect one’s mood and productivity in the moment,” Szabo says. “It can demarcate a time and space to be focused and creative; its consistent and smooth sounds are useful for ‘drowning out the noise’ (both metaphorically and literally).” Just make sure you’re not using this music, as well as other short-term coping mechanisms, to ignore mental health problems instead of addressing them directly. You want to use it as a quick soothing mechanism, not a mental health crutch, Szabo says.
So while there’s no substitute for mental health treatments like therapy — and playing one lo-fi mix certainly isn’t a cure-all mental health fix — these genres can still help you focus and soothe some feelings of anxiety in the moment if that’s what you’re looking for. If you aren’t sure where to start or just want to refresh your own work, study, or chill playlist, keep reading to sample a few of my favorite lo-fi and ambient music mixes on YouTube.