Book Review: MP3: The Meaning of a Format

Book Review: MP3: The Meaning of a Format

I don’t know a great deal about audio, but this piece on how the MP3 changes how we listen is interesting (I still remember how much of cultural studies is linked back to the study of how the Walkman changed our lives):

Sound compression and mobile audio storage are changing how we listen, finds Hillegonda Rietveld

Currently the most ubiquitous recorded sound file format in the world, the MP3 uses sound compression to enable mobile storage and – as the recorded music industry was to discover to its cost – easy and rapid exchange via the internet. Scholarly publications on this format usually focus on the social and industrial contexts of music consumption in relation to creative production, internet distribution, copyright issues and mobile consumption. Here, Jonathan Sterne instead uses the MP3 as a starting point to investigate how the hearing subject is historically conceptualised in the development of the format. From this perspective, the MP3 is not merely a simple sound container but acts as a procedure that constructs a way of listening.

Although it is structured in a seemingly linear manner, starting in the late 19th century, MP3: The Meaning of a Format is based on a genealogy that meticulously traces various technological strands that led to the MP3 being codified in 1992. Sterne’s method allows for unexpected insights that break with well-ingrained presumptions about technological progress. For example, he finds that verisimilitude and high fidelity, integral to the development of hi-fimusic systems and surround-sound cinema systems, are not the only drivers in sound reproduction technology. Aiming for a “truthful” auditory experience seems a flawed goal because each format – from the 7-inch single to the CD and beyond – constructs its own specific sound qualities and embeds specific listening subjectivities. Although the MP3 reduces the bandwidth of a sound recording, this does not seem to be a problem for its millions of users, who are by now accustomed to its sonic qualities; instead, compression is the driving force of its success.

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