What is MP3? — A salad-dressing analogy

What is MP3? Why is it such a big deal? Have you ever fielded these questions from those unfamiliar with the modern digital music scene? There is a pretty simple analogy you can use to explain it, but it requires a short set-up so that your learner understands the historical hurdle MP3 helped to overcome.

First, most people will know all music is stored on some kind of media: reel-to-reel tape, vinyl phonographic record, cassette tape, 8-track cassette, or the newer compact disc. Each piece of media only holds so many songs (or music/audio of a certain length). In other words, songs take up space, and the media only has so much room.

Computer users have been wanting to play music on their computers (and transfer music from one computer to another) for years, but computers also have limits on storage and in sending things to each other. Though it has long been possible to create a computerized version of an entire song, the amount of storage space on a computer this took was ghastly, unless you wanted to reduce the musical quality to something like AM radio (or worse). Further, you couldn’t send that song from one computer to another unless you wanted to wait until your next birthday for it to arrive. This made it impractical to have many, if any, songs of significant quality on a computer.

So what was really needed was some magic technology to make the songs smaller (take less space) while maintaining enjoyable quality. This is exactly what MP3 technology did and resulted in its fame. MP3 made it possible to “compress” songs without losing a significant amount of quality, which means that 1. more songs can fit in the same (or smaller) amount of space, and 2. those songs are small enough in computerized form to be sent from one computer to another fairly quickly, allowing music to be shared or purchased using the Internet.

So how does this magic technology make the same old music smaller? Well, first let’s talk about compressing. Imagine packing your suitcase for a vacation. If you compress your clothing by pushing all the air out, you can probably fit more clothes in that same suitcase. In a nutshell, that’s compression. Now, you’ll note that removing air doesn’t really affect your clothes. You don’t need the air in your suitcase, so you’re not really missing anything in your clothing experience. So the next question is…

How does MP3 remove something from a song to make it smaller? After all, every note and sound is important in the listening experience, correct? Well, do you eat salad dressing? Have you noticed that many salad dressings are available in regular, light, or fat free? What’s the difference between regular and light? Light salad dressing has something (usually fat) removed or other ingredients substituted, but interestingly enough, it still tastes pretty much the same. The quality of flavor you experience is almost the same, and in most cases is good enough to enjoy without distraction. This is how MP3 works as well. It removes some things that you likely won’t notice are missing, but not to the extent that impacts your listening experience. Pretty amazing? Yes. Magic? Effectively, yes. All that matters is that MP3 songs are the “light dressing” equivalent of their full-fat counterparts.

So I suppose that begs the question… are there fat-free MP3 songs? Sure! Like fat free dressing, more has been removed which makes the reduction in purity and quality more noticeable to those who can detect such things. But if you can tolerate that loss and/or substitution, you can put a whole bunch of songs in a small amount of storage.

As an example of the impact of MP3… I was wandering through a bookstore and saw a collection of 66 audio compact discs — The (King James) Bible narrated by James Earl Jones. Out of curiosity, I later shopped around to see if someone had narrated the Bible but used MP3 technology to compress the songs before storing them on CDs. Indeed someone had, and it fit on (drum roll)… 4 discs. From 66 to 4. That’s why MP3 is a big deal and has changed the digital music scene. And hopefully, that explanation will help you explain MP3 to those you teach.

I’m off to eat lunch … and craving salad for some reason.


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