In the library, there sits two camps: those who listen to music, and those who don’t. As you tour around the tables, you might catch an ear of each person’s music, overhearing the stray thud or an odd vocal. The people who prefer silence always remind those in the other camp of this, proclaiming that they ‘just can’t focus unless in total silence’. That said, the chair scrapes, the hushed library gossip, and that coughing person still plagued with Freshers’ Flu do not exactly constitute silence. Admittedly, scientific research does suggest that music is not as conducive to productive study as silence—but neither is hearing about a drunken one-night stand from the other side of the room. And so I turn to music.
That specific anime girl, sitting at her desk against a Japanese bedroom scene, has accompanied me through my studies to the extent that I feel like we’ve grown up together. For those who don’t instantly recognise this description, she is the cover of many YouTube videos of lo-fi hip hop beats, one of which has been live-streaming non-stop since I discovered it years ago. Chilled jazz, soft melodies and the occasional looped vocal, punctuated by the ever-repeating hip hop beat, defines the genre, its mild monotony allowing the music to be conducive to study, minimising distractions. Once I had found myself immersed in the genre, I soon discovered Shiloh Dynasty, a singer who posted several voice clips on Instagram in 2016 but obscured every identifiable detail about themselves to the extent that their gender is uncertain and some speculate about whether they are still alive. Despite the mystery surrounding Shiloh Dynasty, their melancholic vocals have been sampled by countless lo-fi artists, as well as the ever-controversial XXXTENTACION. The sombre notes of their voice and the rawness of the emotion within it transports me into a calmer headspace. Studying then feels calm.
But lo-fi hip hop is not where study music ends for me. Since coming to Oxford, I have inevitably encountered Techno music through events at The Bullingdon, nights at Plush, and, of course, conversations with Londoners. I realise now there is a surprising crossover between what I’m able to listen to when I study and when I go out. The intensity of the techno that I listen to when I study depends on many factors: the time of the day, the urgency of the deadline, and just how close I am to throwing my laptop across the room out of boredom and confusion. For a casual morning library session, I find in Four Tet’s music a luscious brightness which makes something like learning German grammar a more enjoyable experience. If I have a deadline in the next 30 minutes, I find that a strong coffee and Mall Grab make a perfect motivational pairing with the heavy consistent beat, mirroring rushed typing and my own caffeinated heartbeat. And then sometimes it’ll be 9 o’clock, pres are about to start and I’m trying to finish off my last bit of work. I feel the coming night looming, tantalisingly dangling just beyond my desk. In these moments I know that whatever I choose to listen to will probably lessen my productivity, but I still click play and surrender to the inescapable thuds in order to smash out some more French vocab on Quizlet, tapping the keyboard and bopping my head to the beat—before alerting everyone around me that I’m done for the day.
These two genres are my personal favourites when it comes to studying. Some may prefer to go down the classical route (although the study that asserts the benefits of listening to Mozart is questionable). Others may enjoy a simple instrumental playlist to focus them. I listen to music when I study simply because I love listening to music. Granted, it may reduce the effectivity of my study in some way, but it also motivates me to keep going, prevents me from getting bored so easily and makes studying an overall more pleasurable experience. The pressure to optimize productivity in everything we do constantly invades students’ lives to the point of toxicity; listening to my favourite music while I study is, in turn, a sort of resistance to this.
And for those aforementioned people who don’t listen to music as they study and have been torn away from the imperfect silence of the library because of COVID-19, Oxford’s ‘Sounds of the Bodleian’ may help fill that library-shaped hole.