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Lo-fi and new-age music as a balm for the brain

Why modern “chill” music is therapeutic but isn’t therapy
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VINCENT QUACH/THE VARSITY
VINCENT QUACH/THE VARSITY

Depending on how you define it, music has existed long before humans and will probably continue to exist long after. Once we began to differentiate between sound and music, we attached ourselves to it, going as far as to give ourselves an identity through music and a time and community to belong to. 

In an interview with The Varsity, linguistics professor Marcel Danesi said that every century or so there is a new musical ‘era’ with a distinct aesthetic stance and political undertones — for example, the Jazz Age in the 1920s — so belonging to a time is to associate oneself with an era’s aesthetic. To me, the general “aesthetic” encompasses various interpretations of art, including progressions in technology, beauty norms, major art movements, and more. 

Right now, we live in a time where so many fragments of music and cultures have become accessible, so it’s difficult to name the era we’re currently in. Danesi says that today’s musical aesthetic has diffused in the digital age. “There [are] too many fragments in cyberspace that cannot coalesce into a homogenous, or at least an identifiable movement, in the arts or anywhere else.” 

One new genre with an important place in modern music is ‘new-age’ music, a genre that is difficult to categorize. Lately, this music seems to have blurred lines, but the purpose is clear — to bring a peaceful, stimulating vibe to your daily activities. 

Trends in study and focus music have gained more importance in recent years. Classical music has always been the traditional study music, but today’s trends in lo-fi, study ASMRs and binaural beats have gained popularity, too. But to what extent is new-age music the ideal study buddy? 

Modern instrumental music is therapeutic but not therapy

Music therapy is a formal discipline that has methods to treat various mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and more. These treatments must be guided by a music therapist. Lo-fi music, ASMR, and binaural beats can have therapeutic benefits for their listeners, but should not be considered therapy in and of itself. 

The modern instrumental ‘chill’ genre is especially efficient in easing and relieving the mind of any tension and stress. This genre of music may set an ideal ambient background for the listener to be alone with their thoughts. 

Ying Li, a third-year history student, says the magic of the lo-fi genre is the element of everyday sounds. “You would at times even hear distant laughing, you would hear distant rain, and maybe paper tearing now and then… as if you’re in somebody’s life, kind of like how they do in ASMR videos,” Li said in an interview with The Varsity

Li compares the conventions of study music with classical music and lo-fi. “Similar to the progression of a story, [classical songs] have a climax. But the thing about lo-fi is that it doesn’t have any of that… it’s very calm because everyday life doesn’t always have the traditional storyline of a beginning, middle, and ending,” she said. 

Sometimes musical trends package old charm reproduced with new technology, like lo-fi. Lo-fi, short for ‘low-fidelity’ music, is a subgenre bundled with technological differences wrapped in old-fashioned charm and aesthetics. This music adopts sound recordings with technical imperfections — like disc scratches, hums and background noises — in a consistent tempo and with a steady beat. 

ASMR — short for autonomous sensory meridian response — videos are soothing videos for anxiety, sleep, or focus. Sometimes they are centred around an aesthetic like study or sleep. Binaural beats are transmitted to both ears and used to enhance focus memory, as well as for meditation. 

New-age music provides comfortable, soothing background music for your activities — whether you are sleeping, studying, reading, gaming, or generally vibing. 

Modern focus music is a one-size-fits-all genre

Some YouTube channels promote their videos with concentration benefits, but others give versatile playlists to chill, study, work, or sleep to. How does modern music suit all these activities even though they are different from each other? 

It all boils down to individual preference. Assistant Professor Amy Clements-Cortes from the Faculty of Music said in an interview with The Varsity that there isn’t one type of music that will accomplish all those things, but there are qualities of music that make it more relaxing. “If you want it to help you fall asleep or feel less stressed, music that is [repetitive], that’s very predictable, that doesn’t have big changes in dynamics — that helps create more relaxation in general.” 

She also explains how our brain is entrained by the beat of the music we hear. While sleeping you would want a slow brain wave but when you are studying, you might want a little higher, more active beat to be attentive. 

So if new-age music is meant to soothe you, how does the brain pay attention to music while paying attention to your work? Professor Clements-Cortes said that “some people are very good at having music in the background because it helps with their spatial awareness and it helps them to focus. [For] other people, it garners too much of their attention [so] they can’t focus.” 

You choose what music stimulates you and what music eases your brain. Music playlists work the same way — playlists don’t make you focus, but improve your experience of the environment you’re in.

Generally, background music is a secondary focus on the brain because it acts passively. So the effects depend mostly on the genre used to focus. Whether for study, sleep, or to vibe, new-age music is unique for its ambient functions.

Li describes how the little details in lo-fi are healing: “If there’s no sound around me, I tend to get depressed… [and] I will feel really lonely. So… having lo-fi music in the background… makes me feel not alone.” 

“Lo-fi sometimes tells a story, expresses an emotion… [and] allows me to choose to either engage in a story, or to be in the moment, because [of] the ambience, the beats, [and] the tempo,” she said. 

We’ve seen this love for ambient sounds everywhere: howling winds, whistling birds, rustling leaves, rain, water brooks, and much more. When closely examined, this music is just a form of beauty that exists only in perception. Otherwise, it’s just made of sounds that already existed long before we claimed them for ourselves.