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.”
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.