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MP3: The Meaning of a Format

by Jonathan Sterne
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012
360 pp., illus. 31 photographs, 5 tables. Trade, $89.95; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5283-9; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5287-7.

Music, Sound and Technology in America

by Timothy D. Taylor, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda, Editors
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012
432 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Trade, $99.95; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4927-3; ISBN: 978-0-8223-4966-4.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Jonathan Sterne likes to listen, then think about what's behind what he's just heard. His book The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction examined 19th century inventions for sound reproduction, like Thomas Edison's phonograph, and then the commercially successful Victrola, and the now-forgotten ideas and attitudes swarming around them at the time.  Had you realized that the little dog Nipper, listening to "his master's voice" on a shellac record, was sitting upon his late master's coffin?  Sterne illuminated the fact, and many others, about what people were—or thought they were—listening to in the early era of recorded sound.  His new book endows a 20-year-old format we all use and enjoy unthinkingly with a century-long history.

The story ramps up in the past quarter-century.  Perceptual coding, simultaneous projects at Bell Labs and the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, led to the key ideas and patents for the MP3 codec in the late 1980s.  MPEG, the Moving Pictures Experts Group, was a coordinated effort spun off of JPEG, the Joint Photographic Experts Group that set standards for digital images.  Hiroshi Yasuda and Leonardo Chiariglione assembled industry representatives in Hanover, Germany in December 1988. The MP3 codec was preceded by psychoacoustic experiments in audio frequency masking within the structure of the ear itself, differing stimuli and sensation quantities.  Research by J.R. Licklider and others included acoustic modification of the workplace and experiments in audio-distracted deadening of pain during dental procedures.

Sterne investigates the use of noise in perceptual coding and questions whether higher resolution equals progress (a theme in my own career in digital media, but regarding visual instead of audio imagery).  Suzanne Vega's song "Tom's Diner" was used by Fraunhofer engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg in MPEG "high quality" listening tests in July 1990, and Sterne unpacks some of the aesthetic and cultural issues that color and shape supposedly objective scientific tests.  Free jazz players on an Ornette Coleman record were found "disgusting" by some engineers.

The author acknowledges piracy in the spread of the MP3 standard and how Napster, then Gnutella, BitTorrent, and other sites and enablers of uncompensated downloads promulgated the new standard.  There was significant conflict within corporations like Sony, where MP3s were promoting the purchases of new listening hardware from their consumer electronics division, while possibly impinging on sales of CDs by artistes on their musical label. In recounting psychoacoustic research by the telephone company, AT&T Bell Labs  (in whose Murray Hill, New Jersey labs this reviewer's father briefly worked, circa 1930), we find ourselves in a digression on how Wever and Bray's experiments on acoustic response that employed cats' heads were a metaphoric ancestor of Napster's kittyhead logo 70 years later.  In noting the BBC's media monopoly and pirate radio broadcasting from ships to counter it, the story contemplates and gives context to the rights and responsibilities of music producers and listeners as music circulates through society.  Forms of copy protection were quickly hacked. MP3 was a hardware independent format, but its story reminds us that formats do not set us free.  The book examines the political economy of MP3s, behaving like commodities in society even when there's no traditional market transaction of them.

Roland Barthes' lament in 1972 that music is inevitably translated into adjective language reminds the reader of Theolonious Monk's comment that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  Yet explanation of technics contributing to the cultural history of music is satisfying in the hands of this author.  Jonathan Sterne teaches at McGill University, and from the mid-'90s to the mid-'00s, was a major contributor to the success of Bad Subjects: Political Education in Everyday Life, the oldest continuously publishing political/cultural project on the Web.  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.

Its worthwhile companion volume on the audio studies shelf is Music, Sound and Technology in America.  The anthology reprints primary sources on the introduction of phonographs, early cinema (rarely a silent experience), and radio.

At the dawn of the 20th century, a Victrola was promoted by its manufacturer as the central focus of a social event; one advertisement depicted opera singers virtually present at a posh soirée, entertaining the assembled swells in their white ties and gowns, via this electromechanical medium.  Thomas Edison's laboratory assiduously encouraged listeners to test for themselves the "realism" of its recordings, and solicited questionnaires of listeners.  Composer John Philip Sousa decried "The Menace of Mechanical Music" in 1906, but 20 years later was resigned to its hegemony.  In World War One, soldiers wrote of the solace a phonograph provided, and campaigns were held for civilians to donate their "slacker" (no longer frequently listened to) records to the troops.

Prior to sound cinema as most of the 20th century knew it—the optical soundtrack printed directly upon the print of the film—there were competing methods of adding a sound track to movie viewing.  Narrated public slide lectures as part of a night of cinema could add variety to the more common experience of silent cinema accompanied by live music and sound effects.  The proper selection of music and effects was crucial, and in a 1911 essay in Moving Picture World magazine, Lou Reeves Harrison warned of the risk of "Jackass Music".  In 2012 the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies presented several 1930s silent films accompanied by a benshi, a movie narrator; had the editors' focus moved outside the US, international variants like this might have been mentioned too.

The book's introductory essay cites Sterne's term "plasticity", uses of a technology that weren't originally envisioned by its inventors.  Early radio broadcasts won praise for playing lullabies for babies and as an aid in herding cattle.  Much as the telephone was envisioned around 1880 as a good medium for transmitting music, a method of delivering radio broadcasts over the telephone was proposed about 50 years later.  As microphones better presented crooners than shouters, Vaughn De Leath, Rudy Vallee and Olive Palmer became early stars.  Cardinal O' Connell called crooning a degenerate, low-down interpretation of love from "whiners and bleaters defiling the air", but crooners defended themselves as more elevated than scat singers who added hi-de-hi-de-ho "trickeration" to their songs.  Executives of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency were pleased how shows sponsored by their client, the Davey Tree Institute, effectively mixed talks by Mr. Davey on arboreal subjects with its varied musical selections.  Meanwhile, a radio station called WJAZ bragged about how little jazz it played.

Asked in 1927, as he was working on development of the long-playing record, if there would ever be a limit to melodies being composed, Thomas Edison concluded, "Considered mathematically, an enormous number of melodies are still possible."  Inspired by these two books, one could say the same in 2013 about new directions in the study of audio history.

Last Updated 5th February 2013

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