Roll Over, Beethoven

Were CDs designed to be long enough to hold Beethoven's 9th Symphony?

Claim:   When Philips and Sony developed the compact disc format in the late 1970s, they specifically set its maximum length at 74 minutes to ensure that a single disc could hold all of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

Status:   Undetermined.

Origins:   When Philips and Sony began collaborating on the development of the compact disc, Philips produced an 11.5cm, 14-bit prototype that held CD 60 minutes' worth of music Sony president Norio Ohga, however, felt that this format was too limited and insisted on a 12cm, 16-bit format that offered 74 minutes' worth of music. Various reasons have been offered to explain why the 74-minute length was chosen, all of them involving Beethoven's 9th Symphony: that length was chosen because Beethoven's 9th was Ohga's favorite piece of music, because it was Sony chairman Akio Morita's wife's favorite piece of music, or because conductor Herbert von Karajan (who recorded for the PolyGram label, a subsidiary of Philips Electronics) "demanded" it. (Herbert von Karajan lent tremendous prestige to the CD by participating in the 1981 Vienna press conference held by Sony to announce the company's prototype, and his recording of the 9th with the Berlin Philharmonic is often claimed to be the reference recording that was used to determine what the CD's maximum length should be.)

The multiplicity of reasons given for the 74-minute choice should in itself be cause for skepticism. Ohga has indicated only that he felt Philips' original format was not ideal, and that a 74-minute CD "would be able to encompass an entire opera or all of Beethoven's 9th Symphony."
Since this accommodation could be accomplished by expanding the disc's size from 11.5cm to 12cm and still maintain Ohga's standard of "portability" (i.e., able to fit into a suit pocket), the change was made. There is no evidence to indicate what Ohga or Sony would have done had this expanded size still not been able to hold all of Beethoven's 9th. (Would they have gone with a 12cm, 14-bit disc instead, for example?)

The fact remains that nearly all modern-day recordings of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (including the von Karajan recording with the Berlin Philharmonic often cited as the reference recording) are several minutes shorter than the initial 74-minute maximum length of a CD. Whether Sony simply chose the longer of two discrete lengths (which, fortunately, was long enough to accommodate Beethoven's 9th) or whether they chose a specific length from a range of possibilities is unknown.

Sightings:   This item turned up as a question on the 17 January 2001 episode of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Last updated:   23 May 2007

  Sources Sources:
    McClure, Steve.   "The Sony Perspective."
    Billboard.   26 September 1982   (p. CD-10).

    Pohlmann, Ken C.   The Compact Disc Handbook.
    Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1992.   ISBN 0-89579-301-6   (p. 11).

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