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The MP3 Format is Music History’s Latest Casualty

The Institute that licenses MP3 tech recently stopped, but the format that began the digital music era may live on indefinitely

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Wax cylinders, reel-to-reel tapes, eight-tracks, cassettes, and CDs have all been relegated to the dustbin of musical history (you keep doin’ you, vinyl albums). Now, that list includes its first completely digital media: According to Andrew Flanagan at NPR, the MP3 is officially dead.

A press release from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, which helped developed the digital file format in the 1980s, recently announced that it has suspended issuing licenses for the use of certain MP3 patents and software. Rhett Jones at Gizmodo points out that the move is largely symbolic since everyone will still be able to play their MP3s and create new ones if they wish to.

In fact, Jason Koebler at Motherboard reports that the death of the MP3 has been greatly exaggerated, pointing out that Fraunhofer’s patent on the tech recently expired. Now, it has more or less become open source technology, which could make it even more widespread.

Not that that would be a good idea. While Flanagan reports that MP3 was a groundbreaking format that ushered in the era of ripping CDs, Napster and the iPod in the late '90s and early 2000s, it has some major flaws. Back when MP3s were developed, most data was sent through phone lines or processed on computers that were exponentially slower than even a modern smartphone. Saving data was critical, so MP3s used a compression algorithm that cuts out data that researchers believed the human ear couldn’t detect or was not essential to the listening experience.

But Flanagan reports that it turns out developers were working with an incomplete understanding about how the human brain processes sound. As a result, at least one study shows that MP3 compression strengthens neutral and negative emotional characteristics of music while downplaying happy emotions.

The introduction of other file formats including Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) which retains more information and the emergence of MPEG-H have also made MP3 a relic. Now that internet speeds and hard drive storage are almost non-issues, there is no longer a need to reduce every bit of extraneous data. 

But the bones of MP3 run through all of those new formats. As Stephen Witt, author of How Music Got Free, tells Koebler: “Its DNA is used in every streaming service and so it’s not obsolete in the way an 8 track is obsolete. The basic technology hasn’t changed.”

Still, despite its historical importance, it’s unlikely there will ever be a day when teenagers dig out their parents’ old Zune players and rock them nostalgically like they have with vinyl records and cassettes. If they do, however, we’ll have to monitor them for emerging signs of depression.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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