Containing Sound: Sterne’s MP3

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Containing Sound: Sterne’s MP3

Diana Ascher

IS 291B—Special Topics in Theory of Information Studies

Prof. J.F. Blanchette





Containing Sound: Sterne’s MP3



Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format initially appears to be an historical accounting of the modes in which sound is captured and distributed. Sterne traces the use of a variety of methods to make sound available beyond the moment of its creation, from telephonic compression of sound in the early 21st century to today’s ubiquitous MP3 format. In addition, Sterne contemplates what technologies might supplant MP3 as the standard for sound storage in the future.

However, the outward appearance of an historiography belies a different purpose. Beginning with an explanation of format theory as it applies to the ways in which communication technologies function and interact, Sterne explores the significance of changes in technological sound storage formats as evidence of societal conditions and needs. He draws out similarities over time between various methods of sound compression. For example, telephony makes use of sound compression to minimize the proportion of the telephone network each conversation occupies. This increases the number of sound transmissions the network can bear at any given time. Sterne explains that the MP3 format is related to this concept in its reduction of bandwidth requirements as a result of similar sound compression.

Several examples are presented, which Sterne argues demonstrate the societal context of the audio technology development. These contexts, Sterne says, reflect factors driving the thresholds of acceptability for what becomes the standard container for sound, including economic, logistics, accessibility, and quality requirements.



Culture and format

It is often assumed that new technologies become available and are subsequently applied to products and tasks as a result. However, Sterne’s explanations of how sound technology has developed over time dispel the notion that technology is the driving force behind cultural changes. Rather, through a detailed history of the evolution of listening media, Sterne emphasizes the ways in which cultural norms, interests, and restrictions determine the modes of hearing and the measures by which society assesses acceptable standards for the format of sound technology.

His discussion of perceptual coding—and its underpinning model of hearing that reflects what society deems to be acceptable sound reproduction—reveals an essential component to Sterne’s argument: What society accepts as true, or nearly true, reproduction of sound has been shaped since the beginning of audio recording by the standards made universal at the time. This subjectivity of assessment of true storage and reproduction of sound comprises several societal realities, including economics, aesthetics, logistics, and other resource-related components. Further, once a format is favored, people became accustomed to the perception of reproduced sound afforded by the technology in use.

MP3: The Meaning of a Format sheds light on the subjective nature of hearing and how this subjectivity influences the development of technology to reproduce sound, the media formats that become ubiquitous standards for a period of time, and the power dynamics at play. “Within, above, and beneath the surfaces of sonic monocultures, there are many subjects, many epistemologies, many technologies, many histories, and many economies.” (245)

Thus, MP3 is essentially an exploration of the ongoing tug of war between the competing priorities and differing subjective perceptions of industrial, scientific, and consumer stakeholders; it’s about power. However, Sterne insists he is not examining the controversies themselves. “This book is a history of perceptual coding and perceptual technics, and not a history of scientific or technological controversies. Methodologically, my approach is therefore closer to the cultural study of technology than the social construction of technology, though I certainly also build on insights from the latter.” (274) Rather, he attempts to explain how and why the conflicting priorities among these stakeholders ultimately shape the format that becomes standard and widespread. Sterne elegantly observes that “encoded in every MP3 are whole worlds of possible and impossible sound and whole histories of sonic practices.” (18)

Priorities and power

Why would the ubiquitous standard for audio storage be one of lesser quality than other storage solutions? The reason the MP3 format has persisted as a standard is that it meets societal needs outside the realm of superior technology. It is the result of a cost-benefit analysis based upon the values and needs of our culture and the businesses operating within it.

For example, Sterne observes that people who really care about sound quality are able to enhance their experience more significantly through the use of advanced peripheral tools like headphones and speakers than by converting their audio libraries to a superior form of sound storage that is more expensive and less transferable between audio players and different locations. MP3 is the universal standard—for now—because society values mobility and ease of access/acquisition more than its members perceive degradation in quality between superior technology and the MP3 format.

Sterne devotes a significant portion of the book to the discussion of sound container format testing. While the technological details are interesting, the main point of this inclusion is to substantiate why a history of perceptual coding and technics provides insight into the choices made during format development. Sterne explains that psychoacousticians “abstracted up from the telephone and isolated sounds into component elements that could be measured in laboratory settings.” (242) This need to measure and the manner in which the psychoacousticians identified and prioritized characteristics of sound determined the set of formats from which consumers could choose to employ.

Similarly, Sterne cites Shannon’s warning regarding the expansion of information theory too broadly. “To elevate information theory as a general science of humanity and machinery is to elevate the will of the managers and engineers of communications systems into a kind of divine force.” (241) In other words, Sterne cautions that the priorities of decision makers in industry and design have the potential to overshadow those of the end user, simply because they determine the factors included in and excluded from measurement.

“Though ‘test data are usually thought of as providing access to the pure technological realm, a means by which the immanent logic of a technology can be revealed,’ tests are by their very nature made up of contrived conditions.” (151) Thus, the testing never escapes the subjectivity of its designers. Sterne points out that the song used to develop the testing process for the MP3, “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega, is an example of such subjectivity. The tests were developed to determine how well the MP3 format reproduced the aesthetics of that one song.

To illustrate the power dynamics driving MP3 standards, Sterne provides several examples of competition among electronics manufacturers, music companies, and other entities. He draws attention to the case of Sony; the company’s electronics division sold MP3 players at the same time as its music division sued to halt the free exchange of MP3s. “While Sony Music sought to stop the growing swarm of MP3s, Sony Electronics either had to capitalize on it or be left out of the market. The conflict inside Sony encapsulated the conflict across industries.” (225)

Piracy and materiality

Among the many other aspects of MP3 technology that Sterne covers are the concepts of piracy and artifacts associated with different recording methods. The debates concerning piracy connote a paradigm shift in the way sound is conceived in our culture. Certainly, the business interests of those involved in creating the sound containers are affected any time a shift of this sort occurs. Sterne emphasizes, however, that the materiality of the MP3 is still present, and that the distribution of sound still reaps financial rewards for producers and sellers of products that can play them. He seems to dismiss the notion of piracy as being the primary driver of the collapse of the music industry, noting that the consumer’s desire for portability influenced publishing similarly with the creation of the paperback book. Though he doesn’t state it explicitly, Sterne puts the onus of financial loss in the music industry on the lack of executives’ farsighted thinking.

Sterne also discusses the changing concept of sound’s materiality as a factor in the nostalgia often associated with music genres. “Sonic artifacts have become central aspects of the sounds normally associated with particular technologies or genres of music.” (234) He notes that one can discern “changes in musical taste and practice from changes in consumer electronics.” (233) As Adam Gopnik explains in the New Yorker, “what really moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace.” (37) Thus, our minds seek identification with music. This human component is correlated to the artifacts of the process by which the audio is recorded and stored. “The exaggerated artifacts that come from particular uses and itineraries of MP3s are synecdochic of the format’s larger place in mediatic culture.” (236)

Reach and relevance

Sterne’s focus on the socioeconomic forces that shape technological development of sound containers broadens his potential audience far beyond the realm of sound engineering or the history of recorded music. The concepts not only can apply to the development of technology in any field, but also to the development of measurement standards that apply outside technological production. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that MP3: The Meaning of a Format initially was intended for those involved in the business of producing formats for sound compression and distributing recordings to consumers. However, the broad appeal of cost-effective methods to acquire access to music expands Sterne’s audience to consumers (both avid technophiles and hesitant nostalgists). Further, Sterne’s analysis has insights for producers and consumers of other types of technology, as well as other methods to disseminate information. Finally, anyone with an interest in digital media likely will find this text engaging.

Masking and choice

Sterne goes into detail about how MP3s are created and how this method relates to other forms of compression technology from earlier times. “Auditory masking is the process of eliminating similar frequencies, based on the principle that when two sounds of similar frequency content are played together and one is significantly quieter, people will hear only the louder sound. Temporal masking is a similar principle across time.” (21) This masking is a crucial aspect of compression techniques. In short, MP3 technology takes advantage of what Sterne calls perception gaps. By removing the high- and low-end components of the audio—noise abatement—the format achieves an increased storage capacity, yet the absence of this “noise” is imperceptible—masked—to listeners. Of course, the decisions that result in masking reflect the priorities of those involved in the compression.

“As noise-abatement campaigns had often been about the management and even removal of populations or activities from particular areas of cities, it is perhaps unsurprising that the definitions circulating through communication engineering, information theory, and cybernetics led to an approach that emphasized the elimination of noise or entropy in a channel. This was also a fundamental tenet of Shannon’s information theory and Wiener’s cybernetics.” (108)

Economizing of audio technology by removing “unnecessary noise” is reminiscent of the 1/F fractals described by Eglash in African Fractals and the atlas depictions Daston and Gallison describe in Objectivity. (See my forthcoming paper at the end of the term, which delves into this common theme.) It is the process of preserving what society believes to be the essence of something that necessarily reflects the culture informing it. Further, the standards established reinforce those norms until a shift in cultural priorities brings alternate values to bear in the evolution of technology.

Other audio compression formats exploit perception gaps, but in a different way. While MP3 filters out noise, formats like Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM) system employ masking effects to facilitate conversation among that is imperceptible to humans (and animals). (231)  “In the PPM scheme, masking hides the noise of a data signal from listeners, rather than saving space in a channel.” (233) It makes use of the same perception gaps, but its objective is to afford communication among media devices in addition to the sound recording heard by the listener. Already, Sterne notes, PPM is deployed in more than 50 cities. (233) Certainly PPM and similar tracking systems have implications in “big data” and its legal, ethical, and industrial counterparts.

Undoubtedly, when a tipping point is reached that makes it more economical in terms of money, time, ease, and other social norms for listeners to embrace a new standard audio storage format, the MP3 will fall out of favor.


MP3 is notable for many reasons, particularly for its shift in focus away from the study of sound to the study of the influences that shape its containers. Two methods could have bolstered Sterne’s argument, or at least made it easier to follow: comprehensive visuals and content sequestering.

Given the potential reach and relevance of the work, it is understandable that Sterne would err on the side of repetition and restatement to make his points. Perhaps this could have been accomplished more deftly by including more useful figures. For example, the illustrations of boats used to explain the parties involved in the piracy debate in Figures 30 and 31 (235-6) apply to a topic with which the lay reader would already be more familiar than the details of, say, the masking thresholds depicted in Figure 21. (123)

It could be helpful to the broader audience to include a visual representation of the factors influencing compression formats over time. Such an image would provide the opportunity for contemplation of the context and cost-benefit analysis underlying each format.

In addition, a separation between technical description and case study would make the book easier to navigate and digest. This could be accomplished by employing a consistent method of demarcation, say a shaded box, so the advanced reader who is already familiar with various aspects can skip ahead without missing key points. Conversely, a lay reader who is disinterested in technological details could bypass such content.


Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format approaches an analysis of MP3 ubiquity in a way that is both comprehensive and interesting. He supports his argument that culture and economics factor into format development with numerous examples of technique and context. What first presents itself as a history of sound and technology is quickly reclassified as an examination of the cultural and economic factors that shape the measures by which society assesses and perpetuates acceptable standards for the format of sound technology.




Sterne, J. (2012) MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Gopnik, A. (2013, January 28). Music to Your Ears. The New Yorker, 88(45), 32.