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The long history of a little gadget: MP3

System set-up for MPEG listening tests (Courtesy: Bergman, Grewin, Rydén – ‘MPEG/Auto Subjective Assesments’)

The MP3 format may be about compactness, but its history is huge. That’s what the communications theorist Jonathan Sterne argues in his brilliant new book MP3: The Meaning of a Format, which will be publicly released this summer by Duke University Press. According to Sterne, the story of the MP3 is part of the history of compression (the technique of removing redundant data), which reaches back to the earliest days of telephone technology.

‘Although it is a ubiquitous and banal technology, the MP3 offers an inviting point of entry into the interconnected histories of sound and communication in the twentieth century,’ writes Sterne. The book, which took seven years to write, is the long-awaited sequel to his fascinating study The Audible Past:Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (2003). The MP3 ‘carries within it practical and philosophical understandings of what it means to communicate, what it means to listen or speak, how the mind’s ear works, and what it means to make music.’

Sterne brings up striking histo­rical examples which illuminate ‘how the mind’s ear works’ and which anticipated the MP3. His most vivid example is the ‘cat telephone’ developed by psychologists experimenting at Princeton University in 1929. Electrodes – planted in the skulls of two live cats – were attached to the animals’ auditory nerves, connected to an amplifier and then to a telephone receiver. The researchers found that their auditory nerves acted in a way similar to a telephone line: if a sound was made into the cat’s ear at one end of the line, it could be heard through the receiver at the other end. The ear acted in a way similar to a condenser microphone. For Sterne, the experiment ‘literally places sound reproduction technology inside the mind’s ear’ – just like the MP3. The MP3 is part of not only the history of compression but also the development of perceptual coding, which descends from psychoacoustics. Perceptual coding can be thought of as a special kind of compression, in which an ideal model of a human listener – her ‘mind’s ear’ – is used to develop a way of removing data from a file.

Of course, most of the important research on the telephone happened in the USA, notably at Bell Labs. The history of percep­tual coding, a major research focus at Bell Labs, can also be traced back to Germany. In 1977, Dieter Seitzer, a professor at the University of Erlangen, asked the German government to fund a project for the digital transmission of music via phone lines. He did not receive funding for the project, but one of his students, Karlheinz Brandenburg, later helped to develop the MP3. The Fraunhofer-Institut für Integrierte Schaltungen (Institute for Integrated Circuits) codified the MP3 standard in the early 1990s, but the format’s history belongs to the longer arc of the German psychoacoustic tradition, which runs from Hermann von Helmholtz’s classic 19th-century study Die Lehre von den Tönemfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (The Sensation of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, 1863) to the psychoacousticians Eberhard Zwicker and Richard Feldtkeller’s Das Ohr als Nachrichtenempfänger (1956; The Ear as a Communication Receiver, 1967).

MP3: The Meaning of a Format will be released in August 2012 (Courtesy: Duke University Press)

The MP3, Sterne argues, is not culturally neutral. It is based on a model of a listener; and the model is not perfect. It makes broad assumptions about what we will hear and not hear in a song – what we will notice and what we won’t. The MP3’s compression can make a loud, flashy new pop song sound good, while an old jazz song – full of silences and extreme dynamics – may sound horrible. ‘A whole praxaeology of listening was written into the code of the MP3,’ Sterne writes, ‘where particular kinds of listening subjects and orientations toward listening shaped the format.’ Sterne goes on to argue that ‘the MP3 format itself was unmistakably grounded in a specific cultural milieu at the moment of its formation. Listening tests show the degree to which a professionally defined aesthetic of “good sound” shaped the format as much as more scientific or technical determinations did.’ Sterne describes a sound test from 1990, when the standards for the MP3 were being set, and the music that was used for testing – most famously Suzanne Vega’s 1987 pop tune Tom’s Diner which is sometimes said to be the first MP3. There were ‘no thumb pianos or distorted guitars in this bunch, no heavy backbeats or polyrhythms,’ Sterne writes of the music used in the test.

Sterne is the rare scholar who not only puts forth a well-researched analysis but also argues for a whole new field of study about the format instead of the medium. ‘If there is such a thing as media theory,’ he writes, ‘there should also be format theory […] In a digital device, a format tells the operating system whether a given file is for a word processor, a web browser, a music playback program, or something else. Even though this may seem trivial, it can open out to a broader politics […] The format is what specifies the protocols by which a medium will operate.’ For Sterne, the format, not the medium, is the message.

—by Geeta Dayal

Geeta Dayal is a journalist and critic based in San Francisco. She is a regular contributor to frieze.