What We Listen to When We Listen

Jonathan Sterne’s history of the MP3.

Illustration by Sean Ford.

There are no good arguments against the MP3, only sentimental ones in favor of alternatives: the warmth and crackle of vinyl, the possibility-rich canvas of the 7-inch sleeve, the character-building exercise of making a mix tape, that impulse-purchased CD with the eye-catching cover art that became the soundtrack of your sophomore year. For most Americans over the age of 30—for those who relate the size of an iPod to that of a cassette tape or think the idea of a laptop with no disc drive is insane—there is still something futuristic and unreal about MP3s and the limitless possibilities they suggest. But for those who have come of age in the past decade or so, there is no argument for the MP3. It doesn’t require one; it is just part of the natural landscape, like music itself.

As the trappings of our cultural lives seem to melt into air, we have come to attach a romantic virtue to things—holding and cherishing them, buying and possessing them, tracing their histories and meanings. But, as academic and artist Jonathan Sterne argues in MP3: The Meaning of a Format, the dreams associated with MP3s, iPods, and the digital revolution in music distribution are actually “old dreams.” 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. Instead, Sterne offers the MP3 as the realization of a century-old vision of perfect and efficient audio formats. As he forcefully argues, 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 is a titan in the academic field of sound studies, which is broadly concerned with the production and consumption of sound. His first book, The Audible Past, was a dizzyingly wide-ranging meditation on the centuries-old fascination with capturing and reproducing sound and on the centrality such endeavors played in guiding our experience of modernity. While we have a good grasp of how people of the past understood themselves via visual culture or the written word, the histories and pathways of audio culture have been less scrutinized—and dominated by the study of music. Focusing on sound poses a different set of questions about psychology and physiology, technology and mass media, the sound of the city circa 200 years ago. How do we come to understand noise as threatening and silence as a virtue? How does an assortment of sounds come to be understood as music? Who determines whether something is audible or annoying?

These are heady, philosophical questions on a different order than whether it’s OK to steal from Metallica. 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: early 20th-century experiments into what was and was not “audible” over now-crude telephone lines, hearing tests administered to lobotomized cats, paradigm-shifting attempts to deconstruct and then reconstruct the human voice using vocoders.

While the MP3 is most closely associated with other music formats—LPs, CDs, etc.—Sterne points out that a more fitting antecedent might be the telephone and its network of signals. Beginning in the 1910s, companies like AT&T sponsored field-defining research into hearing and human perception. By figuring out the minimum amount of information the human ear needed to discern speech, carriers were able to create a system of filters that compressed the signal of each call and effectively quadrupled the capacity of phone lines in the 1920s.

The history of how these values and standards shifted during different hearing trials itself offers insight into how different generations regarded transmitted sound. For example, in the 1980s, researchers began asking whether a given sound was “annoying” or not, introducing the notion of pleasure (as opposed to definition or fidelity) as the “first principle and purpose of sound reproduction.”  In the initial tests involving the MP3, the only recordings available were whatever the main, state-run radio station in Sweden had on hand, leading to a sonically mild, laughably middlebrow playlist. The notable exception was an Ornette Coleman number, which one of the engineers found “disgusting.”

Jonathan Sterne.
Jonathan Sterne.

Photo by Jonathan Sterne/McGill.

And there is the famous story of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” the song used by audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg to fine-tune the MP3 encoder. Brandenburg was putting the finishing touches on his compression algorithm when he heard Vega’s hit playing down the hallway. “I was electrified,” he later explained. “I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a capella voice.” He listened to the song thousands of times, eventually figuring out a way to convert it into an MP3 while preserving the warmth of her performance. As reporter Hilmar Schmundt remarks, in an article noted by Sterne: “When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega.”

While it’s possible that the MP3 might someday give way to an even more convenient format—something more revolutionary than, say, the MP4—Sterne argues that the fact of “compression” is here to stay, at least as long as we live in a world with finite bandwidth. Which returns us to the economy. As bewitching as Sterne’s prehistory of the MP3 is, it’s the latter half and its macro-level analysis of the MP3 era that is really absorbing. It’s a rise many of us participated in firsthand, for we might think of the triumph of the MP3 as one of praxis. It is a deeply efficient format. It works well. Of course one reason it works well is that so much free music has been harvested in the MP3 format; through our collective loyalty to the format we ended up organically agreeing upon an ideal fidelity and file size, social practices of file-sharing, even situational ethical stances in regards to “piracy.” As the recording industry grappled to deal with the MP3’s ramifications, the value of music became a matter of personal choice. For some, the trafficking of MP3s was a victimless crime that actually promoted creativity and exchange. But for others, the sanctity of copyright still held, and such explanations merely rationalized wholesale theft.

While MP3 software was first released in 1993, the format’s breakthrough moment was in 1997. A lawsuit against illegal FTP sites made the cover of USA Today, thereby cluing the most mainstream patrons of old media about the rich new bumper crop that awaited them online. That year, was launched and by winter, new music from U2’s Pop, Van Halen’s Van Halen III, Madonna’s Ray of Light, and Metallica’s ReLoad surfaced online before official release. By 1999, when Napster launched, “MP3” was the most popular search term on the Internet. Second was “pornography.”

It’s difficult to think about the history of music and its circulation and not pause during those moments when actual history intersects with our own. The faint recollection of the Diamond Rio—the first commercially available portable MP3 player and the subject of one of the first of many nearsighted, dam-plugging suits by the recording industry. The pure ecstasy of realizing that Napster, Limewire, and the rest were exactly what everyone said they were, and the momentary stress of where to begin. The summer it seemed safe to cash in mountains of used CDs for an iPod. The day your younger cousin no longer wanted any of the rest of your CDs, which you were trying to give away.

As Sterne remarks, the collapse of the music industry does not contain any blueprint for taking down capitalism, or even the business of music. The money is still circulating, it’s just lining different pockets—Internet providers as well as the manufacturers of MP3 players and hard drives, laptops, and computers.

Why do we gladly pay for broadband or electricity but not music or software? There’s a reason so much of the aforementioned romance around pre-MP3 music formats revolves around moments of ownership—the first record, tape, or CD you bought with your own money, the collection you inherited from a cool uncle, etc. It’s more often than not the moment music first became material to us. Put another way, these are the moments we began to conflate a piece of vinyl with the sounds contained in its grooves. Do you remember your first MP3? I don’t. But should the point of music ever to have been cherishing the memory of buying something?

Perhaps there was something important about that conflation, for it made literal our participation in a larger economy. 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. The MP3 is a format, just as vinyl records, compact discs, and cassettes were formats. There is music, which will continue to send us into the throes of euphoria or depression, and there is its container, whether it is a minute file inside your computer or a lustrous vinyl record. The nostalgia we feel isn’t for a more thoroughgoing relationship to music so much as it is nostalgia for these things and our relationships to them, scarcity-in-retrospect, the quaint simplicity and innocence of our own past.

MP3: The Meaning of a Format by Jonathan Sterne. Duke University Press.

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