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How Music Works and Why a CD can hold 74 minutes of audio

How Music Works and Why a CD can hold 74 minutes of audio

It is 2020, and today Trump kicked off the new year by killing an Iranian general who once insulted him. Well, if it is going to be his last year in office I suppose he wants to make the most of it.

Today on the treadmill I finished the audiobook How Music Works by David Byrne, best known as the eccentric singer from Talking Heads. He is very bright with a philosophical outlook on life and the arts, and the book covers far more ground than you would expect. It jumps between topics quite a lot but it is always tremendously interesting and there are plenty of sharp insights. I particularly like how he expands on two themes: 1) the business side of recording, licensing, and distribution, and 2) how music can be seen in a historical- and cultural perspective (a huge subject!).

Now, after all the praise, I am going to scold him for perpetuating an urban myth: why the length of a CD is 74 minutes.

How the size of the CD was determined

I am amazed that David Byrne, who is otherwise very thorough, hasn’t bothered to look up the facts about this one. The unglorious truth is the diameter of the CD was chosen to be the same as the diameter of a cassette tape. It is described by Kees Immink, the head of the Philips team, in the article The CD Story (see the figure in the left column on page 3), and he comments “There were all sorts of stories about it having something to do with the length of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and so on, but you should not believe them”. I was in the audience for that presentation at an AES convention around 1998, and it pains me whenever I see it resurface. More details are available in Shannon, Beethoven, and the Compact Disc.

Let’s finnish off with a classic Talking Heads track, Once in a Lifetime, which shows how original David Byrne is both as a singer and performer.