MP3@25: The Anniversary Exhibition

What is an MP3?
What is the history of the MP3?
What is the legacy of the MP3?

This free online exhibition explores how a file format can change the world, and celebrates a quarter century of compressed digital audio. Featuring work by Suzanne Vega, Ryan Maguire, Thomas Edison National Historic Park, and the Fraunhofer Institute, with special appearances by Bruce Willis, Metallica, and Karlheinz Brandenburg.

Exhibition launched 14 July 2020, the 25th anniversary of the naming of the MP3

Curated by Museum of Portable Sound Chief Curator John Kannenberg

The exhibition is FREE and open to the public. However, you’re always welcome to:

An eight-part celebration of a quarter century of compressed digital audio:

Exhibition Introduction

A pair of satirical posters published by (2001)

14 July 1995:
A team of engineers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute take a vote (via email) on the name for a new technology that has been in development since 1987 – one which will go on to become one of the most beloved and vilified technological developments of the twentieth century.

Fraunhofer IIS logo for the MP3

Chosen over previous contenders such as .bit and .son, .MP3 becomes the name for a new method of reducing the size of a data file containing a piece of recorded audio by a method involving perceptual coding – using what was previously considered unwanted noise to ‘paper over the cracks’ of audio data whose content has been trimmed down so that a human listener believes it sounds ‘CD-quality’, a process achieved by the application of psychoacoustics – the scientific study of the way humans perceive sound.

The development of the MP3 was conceived and regulated by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), formed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in 1987.

Edwin Howard Armstrong at a blackboard in 1922, nearly three decades before he took his own life for FM radio.

MPEG formed four teams made up of corporations and research institutes, and set them to the task of creating a next-generation set of technologies for the storage and distribution of digital film – the future of cinema. Each group set about preparing proposals and, unlike previous attempts at creating standards for audio and video, the MPEG teams were relatively cordial – unlike, say, the development of FM radio standards, which – as retold by sound studies expert Jonathan Sterne in his book MP3: The Meaning of a Format – resulted in scientist Edwin Howard Armstrong taking his own life on 1 February 1954 by removing the air conditioner window unit in his 13th floor New York apartment and jumping to his death, due to economic hardship caused by relentless harassment from the RCA corporation, who greedily discredited his work. Though the development of the MP3 was not without disagreements, it was a relatively peaceful process.

Eventually a team of engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute produced a compression codec – an encoder (which compresses the audio) and a decoder (which translates the data into audio signals) – that was fine tuned enough for public use.

Karlheinz Brandenburg, one of the engineers responsible for creating the MP3, tells a brief story about developing the codec that changed the world. (2:30)
An introduction to ‘How the MP3 Cycle Works’ (2001)

The MP3 codec would go on to change the way the world captures, distributes, and plays back any and all recorded audio – not just music.

Quite simply, the MP3 changed the way the world listens – forever.

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