The Meaning of a Format


Sign, Storage, Transmission

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Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 31 photographs, 5 tables Published: July 2012

Author: Jonathan Sterne

Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Digital Media, Science and Technology Studies > History of Technology

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."


“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.” — Nick Murray, Village Voice

“In a world where debates often come simplified and binary—MP3s are destroying the music industry or freeing it, ruining the purpose and sound of music or opening it to new opportunities—why not welcome a more complex understanding of complex issues? Context is crucial. Sterne provides plenty.” — Elias Leight, Paste

“Jonathan Sterne's MP3 traces the sonic genealogy of the much-maligned format from its roots in AT&T's drive to maximise profits by squeezing as many calls as possible into a given phone line, eking out the implications of each stage along the way. A sequel of sorts to 2003's The Audible Past, which offered a history of listening between the stethoscope and the gramophone; MP3 brings the story up to the present day, taking in information theory, architectural acoustics, and the vocoder along the way, before finally settling down to the development of the MPEG standard itself and some of the more philosophical implications thrown up by it.” — Robert Barry, Review 31

“The insights offered here are not only of interest to the study of sound and music but reach beyond to the theorisation of digital media technologies and the understanding of how communication formats develop. . . . [T]his study shows the importance of continuities and the cross-referencing of media formats, offering a fresh entry point in the histories of sound and communications as well as of digital technologies.” — Hillegonda Rietveld, Times Higher Education

“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.” — Mike Mosher, Leonardo Reviews

“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.” — D.B. Thornblad, Choice

“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.” — Hua Hsu, Slate

“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.” — Eric Harvey, Pitchfork

“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.” — Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

“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.” — Derek Walmsley, The Wire

“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.” — Alexander Provan, Art in America

“Sterne argues that if there is such a thing as ‘media theory,’ there should also be a ‘format theory.’ Studying formats, so he contends, illuminates teh workings of a medium.” — John Ridpath, TLS

“The last decade has been a truly exciting one in cultural studies of sound, largely due to the generous and catalytic contributions of Jonathan Sterne...the importance of this book for critical sound studies is undeniable.” — Carolyn Elerding, Reviews in Cultural Theory

“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.” — David Suisman, American Historical Review

“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.” — Aaron Trammell, American Quarterly

“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.” — Steve Waksman, Journal of Popular Music Studies

“Sterne may be our leading music scholar. He is meticulous in digging up obscure histories of corporate and state-sponsored research, which he uses to reposition more familiar debates around music, so-called piracy and listening.”  — Darren Jorgensen, Media International Australia

"By repositioning such apparent tangents and branches at the core of his analysis, Sterne has turned conventional approaches to file sharing inside out and produced a challenging, nuanced, and essential work of scholarship."  — Joseph Schloss, Journal of American History

“Fascinating and intricately nested. . . . [An]  engrossing and exhaustive history of the MP3 ?le format.” — Andrew Pilsch, Information Society

“This book, unlike many works of cultural studies that ignore business as a potential source of cultural innovation, recognizes and explores the ways in which AT&T's research into reproducing sound sent over the telephone system ultimately produced certain culturally specific modes of hearing and contributed to a revolution in how we listen to music today. In doing so, it incorporates the history of business and technology into the world of cultural and science studies in a powerful way.” — JoAnne Yates, Business History Review

“In an era of academic specialization, it is a real treat to read the work of someone who can weave together philosophy, cultural studies, media history, and audio engineering into a book that will change how people think about the significance of the MP3.” — Darryl Cressman, Canadian Journal of Communication

“A thorough reimagination of the history behind the seemingly innocuous format that circulates much of your music. How else to describe a book that features step-by-step accounts of telephones assembled out of cat brains, sensational tales of suicide by inventors defeated by cunning litigation, and cybernetic visions of human bodies incorporated into mechanical infrastructures?” — Melissa Aronczyk, Public Books

“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.  . . . There is much in this big book about a little thing that will inform scholarship across sound studies, communication and popular music studies.” — Nabeel Zuberi, Dancecult

“…Sterne has given cultural historians and communications theorists a highly valuable and easily recommendable addition to the literature on sound reproduction.”  — Scott Beekman, Journal of American Culture

“…[a] masterful work. MP3 is a major contribution to the growing literature on sound, music, technology, and intellectual property, and will likely find a home on many media studies syllabi, particularly for graduate courses.”
— Alex Sayf Cummings, Technology and Culture

“The strength of Sterne’s historical approach emerges clearly in his demonstration of the ubiquitous MP3 format as an extension of a deeper history of sound and communication that challenges clear divisions between analog and digital media.  . . .Sterne’s theoretical work emerges as especially valuable, notably in his framing of MP3s through the concept of mediality, which exposes clouded assumptions about the divisions between media as recordings and as modes of communication and global transmission.” — Leslie C. Gay, Jr, Ethnomusicology

MP3 is a thrilling interpretive ride through the history of listening, perception, and musical-technological mediation in the 20th century. Sterne’s comprehensive and trenchant readings of the 100-year-long project of perceptual technics offer a media format genealogy that is an essential cultural study of sound.” — Thomas Brett, Popular Music and Society

"This is a book that brings many surprises, the most significant being that the format with which it deals needs to be understood against a much wider backdrop than one would initially expect. Sterne places the MP3 within this longer duration of communication technologies, and so properly historicizes it. This entails a considerable rethinking of the development of digital technologies and their role and place in modern communications, and raises interesting issues around the basic question of what it means to listen and hear." — European Journal of Communication

"The book is not a celebration of MP3, but it provides  a positive appraisal of the careful and diligent engineering that underpinned it, and which helped to make it so suitable for a world in which music is experienced in a distracted and partial way."  — David Hesmondhalgh, Twentieth-Century Music

"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


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Format Theory 1

1. Perceptual Techniques 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
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Recipient of 2014 Katherine Singer Kovacs Book Award of Distinction (SCMS)

Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Certificate of Merit in the Best General Research in Recorded Sound category

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