MP3: The Meaning of a Format

Jonathan Sterne
Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5283-9 (hardcover), 979-0-8223-5287-7 (paperback)
RRP: US$89.95 (hardcover), US$24.95 (paperback)

Nabeel Zuberi

University of Auckland (NZ)

If history is written in a grain of sound, Jonathan Sterne turns the humble and ubiquitous MP3 inside out to reveal the longer histories of sound, music and communication embedded in the digital format. One strand of this book elaborates the importance of telephony to the development of sound technologies, a role that has often been marginalized in studies that have tended to privilege phonography and, more recently, digital media. Sterne argues that research in telephony has been central in the economic drive for compression of sound and “information” more generally. These scientific and industrial imperatives have shared many of the same ideas as intellectual fields and aesthetic movements. Sterne contends that the scientific theories and experiments that led to the MP3’s emergence in the early 1990s are part of a longer process of constructing a “universal” listening subject once hearing could be isolated as a phenomenon and rationalized as an idea. The book details the pre-history and genesis of the MP3, its adoption and dissemination, its ontology and epistemology. In the process, Sterne intervenes in fundamental debates in media theory and the political economy of media and telecommunications. He engages with several key terms in audio engineering and suggests some of his own for rethinking sound and hearing. His research archive includes scientific documents, corporate histories, interviews with scientists/engineers, and scholarship in several academic fields.

In the introductory chapter Sterne calls for “Format Theory”, at once a more finely grained and more thorough and distributed approach to media and media change than the usual demarcations of film, television, radio, sound recording and digital media, for example, allow. According to Sterne, a focus on formats such as the LP, CD and cassette is more likely to reveal relations between technologies, economics and cultures of everyday practice. He proposes the concept of mediality defined as “a quality of or pertaining to media and the complex ways in which communication technologies refer to one another in form or content” (9; original italics). This ordinary cross-referencing refuses the teleologies that persist in some approaches to intermedia, remediation or transmedia, and it doesn’t presume any hierarchies. Mediality provides a more contingent analysis of media and their social meanings, moving beyond or behind the media object to the relations between technological forms and infrastructures, codes and protocols, regulations and policies, industry standards and corporate organization. Sterne dwells on these aspects of the MP3 in part to redress the attention on MP3 players and mobile listening practices in the academic literature.

Chapter 1 addresses “Perceptual Technics” which Sterne defines as “the application of perceptual research for the purposes of economizing signals” (19). Sterne frames work at AT&T, Bell Labs and Western Electric in early twentieth century corporations’ attempts to calculate human life and apply instrumental reason to human bodies for profit. The goal of corporate monopoly fuelled research on hearing in psychoacoustics. Taking cues from Foucault on power/knowledge and Bourdieu on fields, Sterne connects the legitimization of this scientific field with its institutional context. In and through media technologies such as the audiometer, which aimed for standardized measurements, hearing was abstracted from bodies and experiences. Different kinds of value could be ascribed to particular frequencies, and some frequencies could be defined as surplus. Sterne coins the term “surplus definition” for the difference between the definition of sound that could be produced and the definition required for the signal to still work. That difference generated “perceptual capital” which could generate economic value. In this probing and measurement of the inner ear and the mind’s ear, theories of sound and corporate research shaped by technologies sought efficiencies in signal transmission and reception.

Chapter 2 “Nature Builds No Telephones” proceeds with this genealogy of the MP3 into the period from the 1920s to the 1940s, as psychoacoustic research and its technologies continue to model and abstract hearing with such innovations as cochlear microphonics, and define the sense as a form of information processing. Sterne contends that this research influenced the development of information theory and cybernetics more generally during this period. This chapter centres on what now seems a bizarre and cruel experiment in 1929, in which Ernest Glen Wever and Charles W. Bray at Princeton University removed the mid brain and cerebral cortex of live cats that were wired into an AT&T phone system. These feline cyborgs contributed to theories of signal transmission, and “perceptual coding” of audio at the “minimum threshold of intelligibility to people and machines” (84).

In Chapter 3 Sterne examines perceptual coding in the 1980s in the broader context of a “domestication of noise” on a number of fronts in the 1960s and 1970s, including the use of noise in dentistry, workplaces, and experimental and popular music. Practices in these fields inform each other with practitioners often moving between them. By the ’70s, scientists had realized that they didn’t need to eliminate noise but could mask annoying or unnecessary sounds with other sounds. Theories of psychoacoustic masking and models for compression of sound shaped theories and models for digital communication, and computers increasingly mediated the ways in which scientists imagined hearing. Inventions like the vocoder which synthesized speech and computer models of hearing based on the cochlea are indicative of sound culture defined by what Sterne—riffing on Jacques Attali’s age of “composition”—calls “decompositionism”, which he defines as a “new malleability of sound and noise across cultural domains that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s” alongside “processes that analyze it, decompose it, and reassemble it” (127).

Chapter 4 arrives at the MP3 proper and how the format was made an industrial standard through a series of negotiations, struggles and compromises between different economic interests in the telecommunications, broadcasting, consumer electronics and computer industries. The MP3 emerged from companies with different markets and distinctive technological requirements. Two codecs for coding and decoding audio competed for prominence, representing two consortia. On the one hand was MUSICAM, which comprised primarily of Philips and Panasonic/Matsushita, and on the other was ASPEC, supported primarily by Fraunhofer IIS (Institut für Integrierte Schaltungen/Institute for Integrated Circuits), AT&T, Thompson, and France Télécom. MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group), which had been formed as an extension of the JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) in 1988, arbitrated competing interests and its layer scheme for the new digital format accommodated these different constituencies. Layer 2 represented MUSICAM, but ASPEC’s layer 3 compressed audio better than layer 2, though it sacrificed quality of sound. In this chapter, Sterne argues that we need to focus more on the politics and governance of audiovisual standards in studies of media regulation, since such standards are increasingly defined across several media sectors.

From this industry focus, Chapter 5 shifts to aesthetic judgments in the design and interpretation of listening tests in 1990 and 1991 that shaped the MP3 format. Far from being “objective”, these tests constructed a particular type of listening subject and propagated certain values about what constituted “good sound”. They aimed to remove subjective experience and context from their listening, but chose particular genres or styles of music for their listeners. While appearing disinterested, they mobilized the tastes of the engineering culture in which they were designed. Sterne recounts an anecdote about Suzanne Vega visiting the labs where her song “Tom’s Diner” had been one of the key pieces of music in the testing of the MP3 standard to explain the clash in listening subjectivities between audio engineers and many other listeners.

Chapter 6 explains the success of the MP3 as a “nonrivalrous” and “nonexcludable” resource in the 1990s and 2000s due to a confluence of industrial, technological and cultural forces in which the record industry was slow to embrace Internet distribution of music, and computer manufacturers and consumer electronics led the way. The Internet Underground Music Archive, Napster, and piratical or unauthorized reproduction and distribution were elements though not determinants in the mix. Sterne uses the debates around piracy to ask if music is a thing or a process. He opts to take a middle path that conceives of it as a “bundle of affordances” and outlines the major perspectives on music as technology, commodity, property, and the idealized (romantic and modernist) work of art beyond performance. The MP3 is enmeshed in processes but as a container technology is treated as a thing. Against some of the romantic, utopian and singular positions taken up in debates around Internet music and piracy, the chapter critiques libertarian views of information and the way the notion of the gift economy has been used to understand often non-reciprocal MP3 traffic without obligations to return the gift. He also picks apart the music industry’s rhetoric on piracy. Sterne is persuasive in his argument that the history of music piracy from radio, to home taping and the Internet in many parts of the world reveals that unsanctioned forms of copying and distribution and their associated activities have often had a symbiotic relationship with sanctioned market practices. He is skeptical about anti-copyright movements constituting a coherent public that might counter the capitalist organization of music, instead more keen to stress that capitalist and non-capitalist forms of music making and exchange have existed together for a long time. It will be interesting to see if the progress of organizations such as the Pirate Party and others advocating culture of the commons will contradict Sterne’s playing down of their political possibilities.

The book’s conclusion speculates about both the resilience and the possible end of the MP3. As Sterne notes—and I can confirm since I happen to be typing this on the first Cassette Store day—older or residual media formats survive; though he also points to the fragility of digital files and hard drives which means that some major currents in MP3 music such as the mashup may not be archived adequately. Sterne also mentions the aesthetics that have emerged as electronic musicians and DJs have played with the MP3’s sonic qualities on other software platforms. He predicts the persistence of audio compression, given the desire for music in mobile technologies such as smart-phones, and wireless communication between different technologies. More importantly, he argues that what we consider media today might be more “diluted” and distributed, so that issues around infrastructures, formats and platforms might become more significant for the politics of communication.

Sterne’s book offers scholars of dance musics many entry points and applications. We already have considerable scholarship on particular formats such as the 12-inch single and cassette. Most obviously but importantly, this history of the MP3 reminds us that new or digital media are actually part of longer histories, and that the analogue vs. digital schism is overstated. There are lessons here for those studying the intersections of economic, political, social and cultural forces in which music hardware and software of various kinds emerge and become widely used and dumped. Sterne’s discussion of noise is useful for thinking how what seem like disparate fields of production (science and art) are actually asking the same questions and using similar concepts. His argument doesn’t assume that noise in music or sound art is necessarily radical or transgressive, but can be quite ordinary and accommodated in existing systems. In thinking about the “good” or “bad” sound of audio formats, we might reflect on the taste formations and values that inform these judgments and how they do or do not acknowledge and encourage a plurality of listening practices. We can trace how subcultural networks and music piracy may not fund terrorism, but might gel with regular business in many respects. There is much in this big book about a little thing that will inform scholarship across sound studies, communication and popular music studies.


Vega, Suzanne. 1987. Tom’s Diner. A&M (7-inch): VEGA2. <>.