May 29, 2017

The MP3 codec* changed the way we consume music, ever since its launch in 1994. Developed by the German company Fraunhofer Institute For Integrated Circuits, the MP3 could compress a heavy audio file to almost 12 times its original size without much apparent loss of quality. Music became easier to download and store, and with the launch of Napster and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharingfour years later, music became increasingly accessible – and the music industry changed forever.

Sales in physical music stores plummeted as people started buying and listening to music online. Indie musicians were no longer dependent on record labels, as with P2P, their music could easily reach an audience. On the flip-side, piracy had become a rampant problem and strict cyber laws were developed to curb this. Most record labels started digitally marking their music to protect copyright, which led to the development of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. Windows Media PlayerApple iTunesiPods and other portable MP3 players, smartphones, music sharing websites and apps like Soundcloud, Spotify, and others also owe their development to this magic string of code.

Watch Fraunhofer Institute’s video about how MP3 files are everywhere:


Notwithstanding the grumbles about quality from music purists, the MP3 ruled the charts for more than 20 years. Technology has caught up with it in recent times and newer formats such as AAC (Advanced Audio Coding, which can compress an audio file with much better quality, also developed by Fraunhofer Institute) and MPEG-H (Moving Picture Experts Group’s audio coding standard) are gaining ground. The death knell sounded earlier this year when the Fraunhofer Institute ended its licensing programme for the MP3. The institute will no longer provide support or updates to the codec as most modern streaming and broadcasting websites are switching to AAC or MPEG-H.

Watch another video by Fraunhofer Institute about how AAC files are taking over:


But, this does not make all your music obsolete. Most music players still support MP3, and we have a long way to go before it disappears from our lives forever. Apple iTunes and VLC also have an in-built MP3 to AAC converter to ensure your music survives the transition.

The MP3 might not be a necessity for the digital music landscape as it once was, but it is not going anywhere. Yet.

*MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III (MP3 ) is an audio codec (a portmanteau of coder-decoder)that uses a form of lossy data compression (irreversible compression) to shrink large, high-bandwidth audio files so that they take up less space.


Text by Subhalakshmi Roy