Sterne’s “mp3 as cultural artifact” and the Neuroscience of Hearing

Jonathan Sterne argues that, via L. Winner’s “politics of technology,” the mp3 is a cultural-political artifact that is “easily exchangeable,” “requires a particular social system,” concerning “property” and “listening,” and is, in essence, a “crystalized set of social and material relations” that “works” for/on “people, ideologies, technologies” and social/material “relations” (Sterne, “mp3 as cultural artifact,” 826). In viewing the mp3 in this manner, he makes very interesting claims about the place of these digital sound files within a neoliberal system. Based off of this one reading, Sterne’s argument seems to rely on the fundamentals of the neuroscience of sound: “the ear concentrates, focuses and stratifies vibrations into sound, which the auditory nerve translates for the brain to percieve” (Sterne 834). It seems that it might help both Sterne and any scholar interested in the topic to hear the details of the physiology of hearing (in brief, based on Breedlove, Watson, and Rosenzweig’s Biological Psychology 258-61).

Essentially, the ear “detects rapid changes of sound intensity,” measured in decibels (248). Sound is the result of “vibrations” which cause “increases and decreases in air pressure,” and the “amplitude” marks the “loundness” while the “frequency” markes the “pitch” (“cycles per second”) (249).

The physiology of hearing progresses as follows, more or less:

Vibrations cause air pressure to change, resulting in sound waves. The subject recieves the waves with the ear. From the outer ear, the waves travel through the canal to the middle ear via the eardrum. Between the eardrum and the “oval window” are bones and muscles called “ossicles” connecting the two. As the drum moves, the ossicles move, affecting the window. This causes fluids to move in the “inner ear,” or “cochlea.” Here, transduction, or the transformation of physical stimuli to physiological/biological stimuli occurs. ┬áThe “organ of Corti” is the heavy lifter in this work: the “basilar membrane moves” dependent upon the hertz of the waves, affecting the movement of tiny “hair cells” and causing chemical reactions. It is important to note that some nerves are now sending messages to the brain while others are bringing messages from the brain (responding to the sound itself, filtering, tuning, in a sense). The firing of neurons is dependent upon the frequencies of the waves (high vs. low).

So, the basilar membrane, within the organ of Corti, moves, or vibrates; the little hairs move or bend, and neurons fire messages based on this movement; they travel up the vestibulocochlear nerve to the pons. At the pons, the messages switch over to the other side of the brain and travel to the inferior colliculi, seemingly where location is figured out. The message then travels to the medial geniculate and finally to the auditory cortex within the temporal lobe. Primary Auditory Cortex is indicated in fMRI and PET scans in the perception of sound.

It should be noted, now, that “infrasound,” “very low frequencies,” unable to be consciously heard by people, “experimentally inserted into concerts heightens the music’s emotional effect on human listeners,” strengthening Sterne’s argument.

With this information, it seems plausible to think that neuroscience (and Rhetoric and Composition) researchers could devise experiments to determine if Sterne’s major claims, quite plausible in and of themselves, are true, and what, exactly, that might mean if they are.