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MP3: The Meaning of a Format


MP3: The Meaning of a Format recounts the hundred-year history of the world's most common format for recorded audio. Understanding the historical meaning of the MP3 format entails rethinking the place of digital technologies in the larger universe of twentieth-century communication history, from hearing research conducted by the telephone industry in the 1910s, through the mid-century development of perceptual coding (the technology underlying the MP3), to the format's ...
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MP3: The Meaning of a Format

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MP3: The Meaning of a Format recounts the hundred-year history of the world's most common format for recorded audio. Understanding the historical meaning of the MP3 format entails rethinking the place of digital technologies in the larger universe of twentieth-century communication history, from hearing research conducted by the telephone industry in the 1910s, through the mid-century development of perceptual coding (the technology underlying the MP3), to the format's promiscuous social life since the mid 1990s.

MP3s are products of compression, a process that removes sounds unlikely to be heard from recordings. Although media history is often characterized as a progression toward greater definition, fidelity, and truthfulness, MP3: The Meaning of a Format illuminates the crucial role of compression in the development of modern media and sound culture. Taking the history of compression as his point of departure, Jonathan Sterne investigates the relationships among sound, silence, sense, and noise; the commodity status of recorded sound and the economic role of piracy; and the importance of standards in the governance of our emerging media culture. He demonstrates that formats, standards, and infrastructures—and the need for content to fit inside them—are every bit as central to communication as the boxes we call "media."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"MP3: The Meaning of a Format is packed with great stories. It's a brilliant book about how we listen and how we make music. It traces the way MP3s have been key to the way technology is revolutionizing music."—Laurie Anderson, artist/musician

"As we continue to inhabit the digital universe created by the invention of the computer, Jonathan Sterne provides us with an important cultural history and theory of the pervasive MP3 audio format. His insights go deep into our basic ideas of hearing and listening, as well as of information, showing how these ideas are tied to twentieth-century media."—Pauline Oliveros, composer and improviser, founder of the Deep Listening Institute, and Distinguished Research Professor of Music, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

"In this authoritative and fascinating book, Jonathan Sterne, a leading scholar of sound studies, traces MP3 technology back to its roots in telephone research. His book is about not only how musical experience became equated with one format but also how subjectivity itself is formatted. Sterne decompresses history to weave a wonderful tale of the many surprising links and twists embedded in those tiny files."—Trevor Pinch, coauthor of Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer

<I>Slate</I> - Hua Hsu

“Rigorous and quietly philosophical, MP3 situates this world-conquering format in a broader context than the familiar stories of college kids downloading wild and the death of the recording industry. . . . Sterne’s fascination with the MP3 and its possibilities yields a book that is, really, a history of auditory culture’s startling attempts to beam sound across great distances. . . . Sterne’s MP3 is an important work in various academic fields, but his probing questions about the future of digital culture have consequences beyond the specialized reader.”
Pitchfork - Eric Harvey

“Sterne exhaustively and eloquently traces the history of the mp3 from the initial hearing model developed in Bell Labs to the current debates about piracy. As the author argues, each time we rip a CD to our hard drives, we're not only saving space in our living rooms or ensuring we have the appropriate gym soundtrack, but also reaffirming a fundamental idea about the limits of human perception.”
The New Yorker - Adam Gopnik

“Sterne’s preoccupation is with the fallacy of what one might call the official, Whig history of sound recording—a constant ascension to better fidelity, the triumph of signal over noise, Instead, he emphasizes the double movement where technology makes the musical signal more and more compressed, more ‘lousy’ than it ever was before, as is the case with the information in an MP3. . . . [T]here is no denying that it adds a necessary historical dimension to the study of music’s workings.”
The Wire - Derek Walmsley

“Unzip an MP3 and the weirdest stuff starts popping out. MP3: The Meaning Of A Format is not a dry technical or economic analysis of the Moving Picture Experts Group Audio Layer III audio format . . . . Instead, Jonathan Sterne’s book unravels the paradigms and ideas that underpin the MP3. . . . It’s an unruly, obsessive and oddly fascinating book, as befits Duke University Press’s eclectic and original texts on music and sound.”
Village Voice - Nick Murray

“As it turned out, the most rewarding music book of 2012 wasn't about an artist, a genre, or (thank the lord) the glory days of punk. Instead, it told the story of MP3, the digital audio standard that author and communications professor Jonathan Sterne traces from early-20th-century telephone research up through contemporary debates over piracy and file-sharing. Along the way, we're taken on fascinating detours through the invention of perceptual coding, the construction (and critique) of the ideal hearing subject, international corporate debates, and an extended discussion over whether or not music should be considered a ‘thing.’ All file formats should be so lucky.”
Leonardo - Mike Mosher

“This book is valuable for anyone thinking about music in our society, and by extension, the production, dissemination and political economy of any digital arts.”
Choice - D.B. Thornblad

“This is an audiophile’s dream resource. . . . This is a book for historians of music and technology, technology scholars, and those with a love of music and audio recording. Highly recommended.”
Art in America - Alexander Provan

“Rooting the MP3 within the broader history of pychoacoustic research, Sterne provides an extensive chronicle of experiments, methodological shifts and innovations in telegraph and telephone technology.”
American Historical Review - David Suisman

“Notwithstanding the tininess of its subject, this is a major work on the political economy of sound and ideas about hearing and communication in the twentieth and early twenty-first century.”
American Quarterly - Aaron Trammell

“Despite, or perhaps because of, the rather dystopic scene that Sterne sketches at the end of MP3, the book falls nicely into the space between sound studies and critical information studies. It joins humanistic scholarship on embodied listening practices to a critique of the economic interests that have funded much of the scientific research on the phenomenology of sound. To that end, MP3 reveals much about the social construction of hearing and how the familiar mythology of audio fidelity has been produced, discussed, and exploited by communications industries. Though the eponymous MP3 may have been eclipsed by the recording industry as Sterne’s main object of inquiry, MP3 details admirably how the ideologies of corporate capitalism are deeply embedded in the listening practices of our everyday lives.”
Journal of Popular Music Studies - Steve Waksman

“Sterne’s MP3 is an exemplary history of the present. . . . MP3 serves as a needed corrective—if not an outright refutation—of the varieties of techno-optimism that have flourished in response to the format’s widespread circulation.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822352877
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 8/6/2012
  • Series: Sign, Storage, Transmission
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 795,116
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies, and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. He is the author of the award-winning book The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, also published by Duke University Press, and the editor of The Sound Studies Reader. Sterne has written for Tape Op, Punk Planet, Bad Subjects, and other alternative press venues. He also makes music and other audio works. Visit his website at

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Format Theory 1

1 Perceptual Technics 32

2 Nature Builds No Telephones 61

3 Perceptual Coding and the Domestication of Noise 92

4 Making a Standard 128

5 Of MPEG, Measurement, and Men 148

6 Is Music a Thing? 184

The End of MP3 227

Notes 247

List of Interviews 295

Bibliography 299

Index 331

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