You came this way: Home > Free Music Archive > Blog > MP3 - A Crash Course by Jonathan Sterne

Free Music Archive

About Free Music Archive

Free Music Archive
dvd on 07/25/2012 at 07:45AM

MP3 - A Crash Course by Jonathan Sterne

Today, there are more mp3s in circulation than all other recording formats combined. This alone would be cause to write a book about them, but I became fascinated with mp3s because of how they are made. An mp3 encoder uses a mathematical model of the gaps and absences in human hearing to remove some of the data in an audio file, in order to make it smaller. If the encoder “thinks” you won’t hear part of a sound recording, it yanks it out on the encoding end, so that the resulting mp3 file is smaller, and therefore easier to transmit over data lines or to stockpile on hard drives and flash memories.

I wanted to know where this model of human hearing came from and what it could tell us about our contemporary sonic culture. The result is my new book, MP3:The Meaning of a Format

The technology behind the mp3 is called “perceptual coding,” and I quickly discovered it has deep connections to the development of hearing science and telecommunications over the last hundred years. Everything we think we know about hearing in the state of nature is a result of the interactions between ears and media in the 20th century.

MP3s also point to the importance of compression in the development of communication technologies. Each generation of new media is usually sold to consumers as being of higher definition and greater verisimilitude than its predecessor (think of how DVDs and Blu-Ray have been marketed, for instance). But developments in compression and lower-definition transmission are equally important for everything from telegraphs, to telephones, to color television, to satellite transmission to the internet. This other history is less apparent because it is manifest inside our hard drives, and inside the massive infrastructures that allow us to move data around. It is not as shiny or sexy as the latest consumer gadget, but it could well be more important for everything from aesthetics to policy.

You have probably heard about mp3s for other reasons. Because of their role in file sharing, they are at the center of one of the defining debates of our time: the debate over intellectual property and the future of cultural industries. Because of how they work, and how some mp3s sound, they are also often invoked in debates around the importance of sound quality. My book covers those stories as well, but it places them in a much bigger context, as part of a 100-year history of compression and the management of perception.

Learn About MP3s:

You can read the intro to my book here.

In many cases, it’s hard to hear the difference between an mp3 and a CD-quality file. But if you encode something as an mp3 and then run it through an encoder again, it gets easier. So I made this cover of Alvin Lucier’s famous “sitting in a room” to prove the point. You can skip around—no need to listen to the whole thing. The link includes commentaries on others who have covered Lucier.

There are many online histories and chronologies of the development of mp3s. Here’s one particularly readable and accessible “official” chronology of mp3 history.

If you’re interested in the technical details, the British recording magazine Sound on Sound had a nice explanation back in 2000, just as mp3s were becoming the default standard for sharing audio.

There are a lot of myths in circulation about why certain audio standards turn out the way they do. For instance, there’s a story that CDs are 74 minutes long because of the length of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. But that’s not exactly true. As inventor Kees Immink explains, the reasons for a technical standard have a lot more to do with industrial imperatives, like working with other equipment.

Suzanne Vega’s "Tom’s Diner" was one of the test recordings frequently used in the development of the mp3 format. In this essay she offers a rare opportunity to hear the story of audio standards from the artist’s perspective.

Finally, if you’re wondering about the actual impact mp3s have had on global music sales, good luck. It is almost impossible to know for sure because there are so many variables (we can’t even accurately count the number of mp3s in circulation). But total music sales have been eroding for over a decade. Here are some global music industry statistics for 2011.

Here is a very interesting report on media piracy in emerging economies, which gives a different perspective on it.

Although mp3s are shared, mp3 is not an open standard, which means that if you build software or hardware that uses it, you have to pay royalties. Learn more about how money is made from the mp3 standard, and who’s paying, by visiting the official licensing website.


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 Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012); and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture.  He is also the editor of The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). 

Visit his website at

Tune in to hear Jonathan Sterne interviewed on Radio Free Culture on WFMU, Monday July 30th, 6-7pm. Subscribe to the Radio Free Culture podcast or check out the archives.


This series is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.



VinceMillett on 07/25/12 at 03:36PM
"But total music sales have been eroding for over a decade". No. They haven't at all. Sales to the three surviving big labels and their subsidiary 'indie' labels might have been - but the trade organisations whose stats are always referred to in this type of article always ignore the fact that most music that is made and sold is no longer done so through their members. It is deliberately disingenuous and misleading of them to ignore all the other sales sources and statistics. The fact is that more music is being made and sold than ever in history. And as for: 'In many cases, it’s hard to hear the difference between an mp3 and a CD-quality file.'...Play them back to back through even half reasonable quality speakers and if you can't hear the difference I'd suggest not working in a music related industry. There is no comparison.
katya-oddio on 07/25/12 at 05:17PM
Fascinating. Looking forward to the discussion with Mr. Sterne.

Much as we use the mp3 format, however, it would be great to see the ogg format fully replace the proprietary mp3 format.

Would love to hear the Radio Free Culture show speaking with the people who developed the ogg format.
log in to post comments