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MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Sign, Storage, Transmission) Paperback – July 17, 2012

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  • MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Sign, Storage, Transmission)
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Editorial Reviews


"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

“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)

“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)

“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)

“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)

About the Author

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 http://sterneworks.org.


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Product Details

  • Series: Sign, Storage, Transmission
  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books (July 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0822352877
  • ISBN-13: 978-0822352877
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #851,908 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Walter Figel on December 28, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Ever wonder what MP3 is really about and why it is important. Wonder what the standard (whatever that is) really means? Well if you really want to know the whys about how music is stored on your computer and iPod, then this is the book for you. It goes into great detail about all the hows and whys. Also talks about the next generation of standard formats and why they will do an even better job at reproducing music. Not for the technically challenged.
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A college treatise written in hideous "college speak" as opposed to English. Not useful for the casual reader. May not be useful for anyone; don't know. I abandoned ship after the first chapter.
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Jonathan Sterne is simply great. If you want to lear about what is called as "Sound Studies" or "Aural studies" you definitely need to read his books, including this one. Clear, easy, documented and a enjoyable reading. A must. Someone should invest translating his books to other major languages.
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Unless you are interested in a lot of excruciating nomenclature and exhaustive details about every and all aspects of music formats, this is not going to be a fun read for you. I got about 20 pages in and gave up. Ugh.
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