Speaking Tour by Dr Jonathan Sterne

Cultural Technologies Node

Dr. Jonathan Sterne is associate professor and chair of the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. He is author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. His next book is tentatively entitled MP3: The Meaning of a Format. He is also an editor of Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, one of the longest continuously-running publications on the Internet.

Professor Sterne will be touring Australia during July and August courtesy of the CRN, and will be presenting seminars and public lectures as well as 'open door days' in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. These 'open door days' are organised by the ARC Cultural Research Network to benefit postgraduates and Early Career Researchers. Jonathan is making himself available for one-on-one meetings to discuss research ideas, thesis conundrums, career trajectories, or to talk more about his own work. These sessions represent a fantastic opportunity to learn more from this creative thinker. Any students or ECRs working in the broad areas of sound, music, technology, media studies, and cultural studies are strongly encouraged to make an appointment.

Tour calendar

July 31st: Guest speaker at the Technologies of Listening Workshop, a day-long event as part of The Listening Project. University of Technology.
August 4th: 'Open Door Day' at the Journalism and Media Research Centre, University of New South Wales. 10am-4pm.

ABSTRACT: Sound Reproduction After Noise: MP3 and the Limits of Perception
Today, more recorded music exists in mp3 form than in any other format, analog or digital. MP3s circulate so freely in part because of their small size: physically undetectable by the unaided senses, they take up (on average) 12% of the bandwidth and hard drive space that a standard .wav format (the kind found on a compact disc) takes. This miniaturization results from the application of a psychoacoustic model – a mathematical table of frequencies that listeners are likely “not to miss” – to a CD-quality recording (this approach is called “perceptual coding”). In other words, the primary technological precondition of the mp3’s proliferation is an applied theory of what cannot be heard. This paper examines the development of that psychoacoustic model and its path to standardization in the International Standards Organization’s MPEG format. The engineers who worked on the format began with frequency models derived from psychoacoustics textbooks but quickly modified them based on the results of listening tests. Thus, every mp3 carries with it an account of the bare life of hearing.

August 7th: 'Format Theory', a public lecture at the University of Melbourne.
August 8th: 'Open Door Day' at the University of Melbourne. 10am-4pm.

ABSTRACT: Format Theory
More recordings exist in mp3 form than in any other form in the world. What difference does it make? Arguments about sound quality abound in scholarship and the popular press, but much less has been said about the format as itself a cultural phenomenon. This is not entirely accidental, as scholars are more often in the habit of conceiving of technology in terms of hardware. In this paper, I consider the historical significance of format as a defining feature of recent audio media history, and argue that the history of the mp3 reveals otherwise hidden dimensions of 20th century audio history.

August 11th: 'Open Door Day' at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, University of Queensland: 12 noon – 4pm.
August 12: 'The Historical Emergence of Perceptual Coding', a public seminar at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, University of Queensland.

ABSTRACT: The Historical Emergence of Perceptual Coding
MP3s get their small file size through a process called “perceptual coding.” An MP3 encoder scans a soundfile, estimates which parts of the recording will be inaudible to the ear, and disposes of those parts, thereby making the resulting MP3 file considerably smaller than the “same” song on a compact disc. In this talk, I will trace the origins of the ideas behind perceptual coding, and show how they traveled from psychoacoustics to communications and computer engineering in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the key insights of psychoacousticians and engineers during this period carry strange and interesting parallels to key writings on music and sound in the humanistic tradition, most notably by Roland Barthes and Jacques Attali. The paper considers what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the homology of the fields” among psychoacoustics, engineering, aesthetics, and political economy in an attempt to explain why perceptual coding emerged when it did, given that the technology and the theory were available for at least a decade before the process was first realized.


This was the first time that A/Prof Jonathan Sterne has appeared in Australia, and it generated a very high level of interest. Over the course of his successful three-city tour, he participated in workshops, gave seminars and held Open Door Sessions for researchers and early career academics. The events brought together a wide range of interested researchers from the disciplines of cultural studies, media studies, history, musicology, physics, sound engineering and philosophy. Several events were at full capacity, and a total of 22 people met with A/Prof Sterne during the Open Door Sessions.

Outcomes will include a special issue on Technologies of Listening in the journal New Media and Society, edited by A/Prof Kate Crawford and Dr Justine Lloyd, featuring new work from A/Prof Sterne.