How to Look at a CD

© Copyright 2021 Tara Weston, Ryerson University.

To the untrained eye, a CD is just a small, round piece of plastic usually with a picture or text on one side and a reflective surface on the other. According to the BBC, they first became widely available to the public in 1982 and promptly became the preferred media format for music because they could hold an entire album on a single side and allowed the listener to easily skip to a certain track.

The holographic underside of a CD
Figure 1.1. Tara Weston. “Holographic CD”. Toronto. 9 Feb. 2021. ©Tara Weston

The convenience CDs provide is the result of impressive technical innovations which can often go unnoticed due to their size. The holographic underside of a CD (shown in figure 1.1) operates much like a vinyl with a spiral track running from the centre outwards. Unlike a vinyl where the tracks can easily be seen with the naked eye, the tracks on a CD are only 0.5 microns wide and thus appear not to exist at all (Brain). In place of a needle, CD players use a laser to read these tracks, converting microscopic bumps and grooves into high definition sound within the blink of an eye. The use of a laser means that they tend to age better than vinyl and–so long as they are well cared for–will sound consistently strong and clear in perpetuity.

To say goodbye to CDs forever would be doing music fans a huge disservice. The sound quality is superior even over most streaming services because digital music files are often compressed to save space. Although good for the hard drive, this is less good for the music because it means that something is lost. In contrast, what you hear when you put a CD into the player is exactly what the artist intended for you to hear (and in the intended order too). The experience doesn’t end with the audio, either. I remember sitting on my bedroom floor for hours, reading through the album booklets and always being pleasantly surprised to find not only lyrics and ‘Special Thanks’ pages, but art as well.

Shown in figure 1.2, Kid A by Radiohead features some of my favourite album artwork and perfectly showcases the full potential of the CD. The artwork was created by singer Thom Yorke alongside English artist Stanley Donwood and manages somewhat miraculously to encapsulate the chaotic feel of the album in a visual format. Kid A was an unusual album (even for Radiohead) with Dadaist lyrics and strange electronic sounds which you seem to feel in your teeth sometimes. The glossy paper the sharp, digitally-manipulated mountains are printed on are reminiscent of the softer parts whereas the rough sketches on wax paper reflect the harsh, teeth-grinding noises heard in other parts.

Album artwork from Kid A by Radiohead
Figure 1.2. Tara Weston. “Album artwork for Radiohead’s Kid A by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood (2000)”. Toronto. 9 Feb. 2021. ©Tara Weston

There is something to be said for tangibility in a time where digital media seems to be winning. In an era of endless monthly subscriptions, it can be nice just to simply own a piece of media that straddles the border between analogue and digital, being compatible with both worlds but never threatening to disappear as streaming platforms may decide to do if they ever cease to be profitable.

Works Cited

Bowe, Tucker. “Yes, You Should Still Be Buying CDs, Here’s Why.” Gear Patrol, 26 Jan. 2021, Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

Brain, Marshall. “How CDs Work.” HowStuffWorks, Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2000.

“History of the CD: 40 Years of the Compact Disc.” BBC Newsround, 12 March 2019,,CDs%20had%20been%20sold%20worldwide. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

Weston, Tara. “Album artwork for Radiohead’s Kid A by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood.” 2000. Digital Photograph. 9 Feb. 2021.

Weston, Tara. “Holographic CD.” 2021. Digital Photograph. 9 Feb. 2021.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.