In the early 1980s, graduate student Karlheinz Brandenburg began working on digital music from an unusual perspective. How much detail could be removed before the average listener noticed what was missing?
His efforts paid off with the creation of MP3, the first popularly accepted lossy music compression scheme.
MP3 changed the world. Where once file storage and bandwidth limitations doomed music lovers to small libraries in limited locations, MP3 launched an entire revolution of big libraries and the beginnings of streaming.
His work built upon research from 1894 when the American physicist Alfred M. Mayer reported that a tone could be rendered inaudible by another tone of lower frequency. This discovery lead to a field of science known as auditory masking, later called psychoacoustic masking.
Brandenburg was fascinated by the idea of pairing down file sizes by eliminating unnecessary musical information, like soft details covered up by louder sounds. You probably wouldn't miss a lone cough during the crescendo of Hallelujah chorus.
MP3 was a wild success. Without it, and its many variations of lossy compression, Steve Jobs wouldn't have been able to change the world with the iPod and internet—depriving billions of their music.
But lossy compression's time has passed. We no longer worry about bandwidth or storage restrictions.
MP3, AAC, and the plethora of lossy formats that trade musical information for smaller files sizes should be relegated to the closet.
Lossy compression succeeded in changing the world.
Let's allow it to rest in peace.