What Is MP3 Format & What Is Its Origins? [Technology Explained]

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What is MP3 formatMP3 – you keep hearing it all over. You realize that it has something to do with music or that it is an audio file extension. However, there are many audio file formats out there, but nothing as popular as MP3.

What is MP3 format exactly? We will now take a deeper look into such questions concerning MP3’s in this article.


So what is MP3 format? We addressed the question to some extent above. Simply speaking, MP3 is a file extension for an audio file. OR to be a little more precise – it is a digital audio encoding format that can be used to effectively compress sound files with minimal loss in percieved quality.

MP3 stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3. Despite the seemingly scary translation the technology involved is surprisingly simple. One important thing though – MP3 is strictly an audio encoding format, which means that it cannot be used for photo or video encoding, unlike some of the other formats out there.


As is often the case, there has to be an organisation or a person who specifies and mantains the standard. MP3 is no exception. It was designed by Moving Picture Experts Group which is responsible for setting the standards for audio and video encoding.

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What is MP3 formatWhile it is difficult to point out a single date when MP3 was created / first became popular, it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that the first MP3 files started appearing in the early 1990’s. From then on, riding atop the Internet’s popularity and peer to peer networking (think Napster) MP3 quickly became the audio format of choice.


explain what is mp3So why was MP3, and is, so popular? In those early days of limited hard drive space, MP3 proved to be a blessing because it could reduce file sizes to as much as a 10th of the original size. Add to that it is super easy to create MP3 files, and there is no evident loss in sound quality and you have got yourself a winner in audio encoding format.


The MP3 encoding algorithm is wily and cunning. It is based on what is called perceptual noise shaping. The perceptual noise shaping technique takes into consideration the following rules based on the characterstics of the human ear:

  • Rule 1: Remove any sounds that the human ear cannot hear.
  • Rule 2: If a loud sound and a soft sound occur at the same time, only keep the loud sound because the soft sound won’t be heard anyway.
  • Rule 3: There are some sounds the human ear is particularly receptive to, always include these sounds in the final encoding.

Apply these three rules to any sound file and you will end up removing those sounds which the human ear was not going to hear anyway. Moreover, there is no perceived loss in sound quality when compared with the original uncompressed, non-MP3 file.

Despite of all this MP3 is referred to as a “lossy” format because it doesn’t contain all the information that was contained in the original sound file and it is thus smaller in size.

explain what is mp3

That said, there are situations when you might not care about the file size and you might want to include more information in the resulting MP3 file. This is certainly possible by using a higher bit rate. There is always a tradeoff between bit rate and file size when creating an MP3 file. Higher the bit rate, the more information there will be in the MP3 file but it also means that the file size will be larger.

On the other hand you can achieve an insanely small file size with low bit rates but that leads to loss of information and introduces compression artifacts (or noises) in the resulting MP3 file. Most MP3 encoders allow you to choose a bit rate either directly or as a quality setting, so you can tweak things around according to your needs.

Some Free Tools For MP3 Files

That’s enough information you can bang your head on. Now it’s time to get a little pragmatic. Here are some tools and articles that should get you started:

MP3 is presently the most popular audio file format out there. Now that you know a thing or two about MP3, go reward yourself with a few minutes of your favorite track. Banshee here I come.

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