The Story of How Beethoven Helped Make It So That CDs Could Play 74 Minutes of Music

We music fans of the increas­ing­ly all-dig­i­tal 2010s take com­pact discs for grant­ed, so much so that many of us haven’t slid one into a play­er in years. But if we cast our minds back, and not even all that far, we can remem­ber a time when CDs were pre­cious, and the medi­um itself both impres­sive and con­tro­ver­sial. Back when it first came on the mar­ket in 1982 (pack­aged in long­box­es, you’ll recall) it seemed impos­si­bly high-tech, inspir­ing dream­i­ly futur­is­tic pro­mo­tion­al videos like the one below and emerg­ing from a process of devel­op­ment that required the com­bined R&D and indus­tri­al might of both Japan and Europe’s biggest con­sumer-elec­tron­ics giants, Sony and Philips.

That years-long coor­di­nat­ed effort, as Greg Mil­ner writes in Per­fect­ing Sound For­ev­er, saw a team of engi­neers from both com­pa­nies “shut­tling between Eind­hoven and Tokyo,” the pro­to­type CD play­er “giv­en its own first-class seat on KLM.”

Mil­ner also men­tions that “Philips want­ed a 14-bit sys­tem and a disc that could hold an hour of music, while Sony argued for 16 bits and 74 min­utes, sup­pos­ed­ly because that was the length of Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­pho­ny,” though he calls the Beethoven bit “like­ly a dig­i­tal audio urban leg­end.” But, like any urban leg­end, it con­tains grains of truth, though how many grains nobody quite knows for sure.

Philips’ pre­ferred sys­tem would play 115-mil­lime­ter discs, while Sony’s would play 120-mil­lime­ter discs. As Wired’s Randy Alfred tells it:

When Sony and Philips were nego­ti­at­ing a sin­gle indus­try stan­dard for the audio com­pact disc in 1979 and 1980, the sto­ry is that one of four peo­ple (or some com­bi­na­tion of them) insist­ed that a sin­gle CD be able to hold all of the Ninth Sym­pho­ny. The four were the wife of Sony chair­man Akio Mori­ta, speak­ing up for her favorite piece of music; Sony VP Norio Ohga (the company’s point man on the CD), recall­ing his stud­ies at the Berlin Con­ser­va­to­ry; Mrs. Ohga (her favorite piece, too); and con­duc­tor Her­bert von Kara­jan, who record­ed for Philips sub­sidiary Poly­gram and whose Berlin Phil­har­mon­ic record­ing of the Ninth clocked in at 66 min­utes.

Fur­ther research to find the longest record­ed per­for­mance came up with a mono record­ing con­duct­ed by Wil­helm Furtwän­gler at the Bayreuth Fes­ti­val in 1951. That play­ing went a lan­guorous 74 min­utes.

A good sto­ry, sure, but as Philips Engi­neer Kees A. Schouhamer Immink writes in a tech­ni­cal arti­cle mark­ing the CD’s 25th anniver­sary, “every­day prac­tice is less roman­tic than the pen of a pub­lic rela­tions guru.” What­ev­er the influ­ence of Beethoven, in 1979 “Philips’ sub­sidiary Poly­gram — one of the world’s largest dis­trib­u­tors of music — had set up a CD disc plant in Hanover, Ger­many that could pro­duce large quan­ti­ties of CDs with, of course, a diam­e­ter of 115mm. Sony did not have such a facil­i­ty yet. So if Sony had agreed on the 115mm disc, Philips would have had a sig­nif­i­cant com­pet­i­tive edge in the music mar­ket. Ohga was aware of that, did not like it, and some­thing had to be done.”

How much does the run­ning time of a CD, which would enjoy a long reign as the dom­i­nant media for record­ed music, owe to what Immink calls “Mrs. Ohga’s great pas­sion for [Beethoven],” and how much to “the mon­ey and com­pe­ti­tion in the mar­ket of the two part­ners”? Not even Snopes, which rules the claim of a con­nec­tion between Beethoven’s Ninth and the devel­op­ment of the CD as “unde­ter­mined,” can set­tle the mat­ter. But what­ev­er deter­mined the length of the albums in the CD era, that 74-minute run­time remains a strong influ­ence on our expec­ta­tions of album length even now that musi­cians can record and sell them at any length they like — and now that we the con­sumers can lis­ten any way we like, frag­ment­ing, re-arrang­ing, and cus­tomiz­ing all of our music expe­ri­ences, even Beethoven’s Ninth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Did Beethoven Com­pose His 9th Sym­pho­ny After He Went Com­plete­ly Deaf?

How Steely Dan Wrote “Dea­con Blues,” the Song Audio­philes Use to Test High-End Stere­os

A Cel­e­bra­tion of Retro Media: Vinyl, Cas­settes, VHS, and Polaroid Too

The Dis­tor­tion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Cre­at­ed “a McDonald’s Gen­er­a­tion of Music Con­sumers”

Neil Young on the Trav­es­ty of MP3s

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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