Streaming services up until this point have done poorly at helping fans of classical music find the music they’re actually looking for. Apple Music is the newest contender, and it has some good traits for classical fans, though it too has some improvements to make.
First, some background.
The Mess We Have: aka the Metadata Problem
Primarily, this has to do with metadata. Metadata is information about a file that’s stored within the file itself. You might recognize music fields such as “Album” and “Artist”, but metadata can also store which track number a song is, the performer for that track as opposed to the “Album Artist”, the “Composer” of the track and many other useful bits of information.
ITunes and many other music players on your Mac or PC make this all available to you to read and edit as you wish. It’s tedious, but taking some time to clean up the metadata in your music library can very much be worth it if your library is a confusing mess. The iTunes Store itself often has excellent metdata on its recordings, and all of that becomes visible after purchasing an album.
In a thread dating back to 2012, a musician requested Spotify add the “Composer” field to tracks and apply a consistent name to pieces. This thread has still not officially been resolved. In a follow up comment, a different user adds:
It appears that someone with absolutely no knowledge of classical music got put in charge of naming tracks on new releases and updated albums. The name of the work, “Piano Concerto No.27,” is missing from the track names. Now if I’m scanning through a playlist, I have to waste time trying to figure out which piano concerto it is, or if it’s even a piano concerto (granted, in this example the album contains the names of the two piano concertos on the album, but what if it’s in a box-set album called “Mozart: Complete Piano Concertos?”
To be sure, the problem is genuinely challenging, as Anastasia Tsioulcas writes in “Why Can’t Streaming Services Get Classical Music Right?”:
We’re talking about a genre that, in its broadest strokes, encompasses hundreds of years’ worth of music, many thousands of composers and performers, very similar titles (ex: Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 versus his Symphony No. 104), multiple movements within most compositions and innumerable recordings, with each piece of music recorded by many different artists. No wonder the metadata gets complicated.
You Have to Believe It’s Getting Better
However, Spotify’s classical organization has been steadily improving. Spotify Classical tracks the changes in Spotify, and sure enough, composers’ names have been steadily been added alongside the track names. This is very label dependant, and based on a quick informal search, there are still recordings without clear composer information.
Additionally, due to the relative maturity of Spotify, a community of dedicated classical fans have been creating playlists and channels for people to find interesting music. Ulysses Classical and Filtr Classical are full of excellent and creative playlists. This morning I listened to the Classical Music Used in Stanley Kubrick Films playlist, and it was excellent.
How is Apple Music’s solution, and what can you do to improve your chances of finding what you want? I’ll mostly compare it to Spotify, since it’s the dominant streaming service, and I’m most familiar with that service.
Apple Music on iOS (your iPhone or iPad)
Let’s just take a look at the iOS Music app. ITunes on your Mac or Windows PC is still basically iTunes with all the streaming stuff added on top, and everything you can do here, you can do there.
There are several ways of finding new music across all versions of Apple Music, and they have overlapping features. Broadly, those are:
- Directly searching for music
- Finding something in the “Connect” tab
- Using curated playlists
- Exploring the “New” section
- Listening to “Radio” stations
- Using Siri
- Listening to music you’ve saved in “My Library”
Searching for Music for “On-Demand” Listening
By tapping the magnifying glass in the upper right hand corner, you can search within Apple Music immediately. As you can see in the above image, my search for Richard Wagner has turned up some results, but notice what’s missing.
There’s no Composer field. Here, Wagner is listed as an Artist, which breaks the normal metadata model for classical music right away. I doubt that Wagner himself is actually performing in any of these recordings.
I promise I’m not just being pedantic for its own sake. Let’s look at a more troubling example: Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was composer, conductor and sometimes performer, and I bet we’ll see some fun things in those results.
Sure enough, the search results make it look like Leonard Bernstein is the composer of Adagio for Strings since its a “Song by” him. Scroll down further, and you see a field marked “Songs”, and none of the examples are songs. Some pieces listed here were composed by Lenny, but others are not, and there’s no clear way to differentiate between them.
Clicking on Adagio for Strings, we get more information, but there’s no distinct composer field. Thankfully, there’s some good info here. The words in bold are the title of the track. Below that are the Artist and – separated by a dash – Album. There’s no Album Artist listing, which is distinct from Artist. That’s not a disaster. Artist tends to denote the performer on that particular track, which is useful for opera in particular, and I’m glad they decided to display Artist rather than Album Artist.
In this case, Barber is identified as the composer in the album name. But the other composers on the album? Their names are nowhere to be found (similarly on Spotify, no composers are listed for this album).
But what if I searched for those composers directly? I can’t see their names here, but would these tracks show up if I already knew who they were? Let’s start with Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose authorship of the above pictured Fantasia was missing.
After searching for his name, and clicking on “Songs”, sure enough, I find this exact album and track, albeit with Vaughan Williams’ name missing:
I’ve tested this with other tracks. The metadata is not presented to the user in iOS, but the information is still there within the catalog. Naturally, this only helps if you know who the composer is ahead of time, which is a pain, but it means that the catalog has the correct composer information and the program itself can be modified later to make that accessible in a more direct way.
If you did click on the artist page for someone, you’d get a overview of the works they’ve put out. Let’s compare what that looks like in Apple Music vs. Spotify:
The right two images are Spotify. Both services have a nice B&W image of Lenny. If you pull down in the Spotify page, then you get a second more all-encompassing image. Nice touch.
How about for a composer like Richard Wagner?
Hmm. Really? Mozart at least gets a painting in Apple Music, but Wagner? Nadda. Spotify’s page, on the other hand, has a couple of nice images.
How about the content itself? If we search for Mozart, we see a lot of non-quality options (I’m trying to be diplomatic here) like “Easy Listening Lullabies” and “Classical Lullabies for Baby” and “Mozart for Brain Power”. Is this what people are looking for when they specifically look on Mozart’s artist page? I doubt it.
Spotify does better here. They’ve put quality albums much closer to the top. What can I say? Spotify has done a better job at this.
The “Connect” Tab
Won’t lie: there’s not a ton here yet. In my feed, there’s some content from Sir Simon Rattle, Yo-Yo Ma, the King’s Singers, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Your mileage may vary.
It’s an interesting idea, and if they keep putting things there, then I’ll keep checking on it. But compared to Spotify’s “Activity” area, this is mostly barren.
As I mentioned previously, the curated playlists are good. I’ve already found a lot of new music from a wide variety of genres. Tap the “For You” tab, and – if you’ve gone through the process of letting Apple Music know what you like – you’ll get some recommended playlists.
There are several curated classical lists, and full albums are often suggested under the “For You” tab as well. They seem to have my tastes pretty well identified since I’m getting a lot of art song and opera recommendations.
However, the problems of getting precise details from the tracks remain if you don’t have prior knowledge. After hearing something new that I enjoyed, I looked at the provided information to spot the composer and found zero zip nadda.
The performer was appropriately identified as the Artist (in this case Bang on a Can All-Stars), which is good, but without a Composer field, I had to – ultimately – turn to Google to answer the question. The answer? Michael Gordon (his name is there when the track is searched for in Spotify though).
Once again though, if I search for his name directly, I find this very track even though his name is invisible on the track itself. The information is there, it’s just not exposed to us. Go figure.
Spotify Does Well with Playlists
I follow several artists and classical music channels in Spotify, and everytime they add something, I get a little unobtrusive notification in Spotify itself. There are some wild playlists on Spotify that I’ve found (like a playlist of three dozen recordings of one aria sung by different women), and I doubt those polished Apple Music curators will do that kind of thing.
They should let us do that in addition to the curated playlists. There should be a section for user-created playlists and channels.
In Apple Music, there are “curators”, but are they any good? You can find a list of them by searching for “curators”, then finding the Classical curators:
Once there, you can swipe over to see all of their playlists:
The playlist titles look good. They provide introductions to various performers and composers, which is cool. Notably, several composers who don’t have images in their artist pages have images for their introduction playlists. OK.
Once you explore the playlists though, the problems become evident. Look at the tracks chosen for the Gustav Mahler intro playlist:
First, those are all movements from symphonies exclusively. Mahler’s symphonies are important to be sure, but they weren’t the only genre in which he wrote. Second, it’s too short. I don’t know why Apple Music’s curated playlists are limited to so few songs, but this is a common complaint about their lists.
Second, they have playlists for people like – forgive me for mentioning him again – Leonard Bernstein, and they don’t differentiate between his many roles. That would be ok, if the playlist were longer, but it’s very short. It’s a very brief introduction for a very important musician.
Glancing through Spotify, I see playlists much more precise and full-featured playlists. Understandably, Spotify is more mature at this point, but this kind of variety and substance is what Apple Music should be aiming for either by letting passionate individuals into the playlists composition world or by hiring excellent classical curators. Or both.
The “New” tab contains a vast amount of stuff. If you know you want classical music, then just tap the “All Genres” button and change it to “Classical” and voilà!.
From there you get various subsections of options. I like knowing that there’s a place where I can go to find new stuff that’s nicely presented and easy to access. It’s pretty mainstream, but that’s ok for a start.
But again… again. Look at the image above and at the first “Hot Track” (suddenly we’re using “Track” instead of “Song”?). Whose “Symphony No. 3” is that? No idea. Why is this information not immediately accessible?
Apple Music Radio
In the Radio tab, you’ll find individual stations and Beats 1, Apple’s new 24 hour radio station. Don’t expect to hear anything on Beats 1 that sounds like classical music. That’s not a ding against them, but it’s the truth.
The other stations are ok. If you ever used iTunes Radio, the stations function just like them, which is to say: Pandora-like. Under the listed genre stations, there is a broad classical station. Once again, no composers are listed unless they’re in the album title.
You can also create stations based off of an Artist or a Track in myriad ways. Normally, touching the three dot pattern that is often present gives you the option to create a station. I’ve found the process unfortunately buggy at this point in time. I hope this gets worked out soon.
To be honest though, there are lots of ways to listen to classical music radio that will make much more sense than a Pandora-like system. NPR works in Apple Music. Just search for NPR, tap “Stations” in the search results, and then scroll until you find the one you want. With NPR, you can listen to any channel in the country over your phone and get context and insight, and you might get entire works instead of chopped up movements. Just an idea.
Siri has some fun functionality for Apple Music, though for classical listeners, it might be more of a novelty than a serious discovery mechanism.
For example, if you request “Play the top song from Mozart”, it will play you Symphony no. 40… FROM THE CALL OF DUTY BLACK OPS SOUNDTRACK. Forgive the all caps, but this is hilarious. At least it’s not a lullaby for my brain I guess.
You also have to be careful of your pronunciation. Siri handles foreign names poorly, and if you ask for someone like Richard Wagner using a German pronunciation, you’ll get this:
This has long been a sore spot for me. These are known composers with known pronunciations, I shouldn’t have to mispronounce a name to have these services figure it out.
Listening to Your Saved Music
Any music that you find in Apple Music can be saved to “My Music” for easy access later. You can save songs or albums. Here’s a tip: if you want to save the whole album, then don’t save an individual track first. It’s frustratingly cumbersome to change course here. You can get to the album of a playing track by tapping the three dots near the bottom right hand corner and touching the section that shows the album art and song title. Sometimes, this is buggy and it goes to an “Unknown Artist” page for an “Unknown Album”, but theoretically this should work. Then just tap the three dots to the upper right to find the option to “Add to My Music”.
All of your saved music from Apple Music is mixed in with your amassed library from iTunes, so right away this can be a ton of music. It’s hard to figure out which albums come from your personal library of purchased recordings and which come from the streaming service.
But here’s what’s interesting here. The red “Artists” in the middle of the “My Music” screen is a button, and if you tap it, you get:
Wait… what? Finally a “Composers” option?
Yes, and sure enough you can scroll through the list and find those tracks that have that otherwise hidden Composer info. Again though, you need to know the name of the composer in advance because the list of composers with a large enough library can become intimidating.
But this is good stuff, and Apple should expand upon it. Spotify has no option to sort your library by composer, and this is a big win for Apple here.
Some Desires from Apple for the iOS Version of Apple Music
Some suggestions and desires for this part of the service:
- Make the “Composer” field always visible in search results.
- Restrict the “Artist” field for performers only, and this way we can differentiate between someone like Leonard Bernstein was a performer/conductor for a recording or the composer or both. Right now, it’s too jumbled.
- Rename “Songs” to “Tracks”. “Tracks” is neutral without sounding too technical (unlike “File” or something). Most classical music is not comprised of songs, and it’s disappointing to see Apple being so clumsy about this.
- Boolean search terms. I would love to be able to type
carerrasand get specific results.
- Let users share playlists within Apple Music. Spotify does this, and it works. There are lots of classical music channels who just pump out great stuff to listen to in Spotify, and that’s what Apple is competing against.
- If you’re going to have artist pages for composers – which is fine – then they should have some sort of picture as well. Like the ones used for their introduction playlists.
- Expose quality recordings from established classical music record companies on the artist pages. We shouldn’t need to dig through strange compilations to find the actual quality stuff. If I’m looking for Mozart music, it shouldn’t come from video game soundtracks or pseduoscience compilation albums.
- Siri should know the correct pronunciations of popular non-English artists.
My complaints mostly hinge on the fact that composers are actually important, and they are especially important in classical music. The metadata itself is there within their library, but it’s way too hard to find it. Spotify is actually pulling ahead in composer discoverability, though it’s spotty, no pun intended, right now. And there’s no Composer field in Spotify in which to search within your own library, unlike Apple Music. And iTunes on the Mac and PC makes it – usually – very easy to find the composer. Apple is being clumsy here in how they present classical music.
My other complaints involve the kind of top down role involving how playlists are shared. I like the curated playlists, but I want to see what weird stuff other normal people come up with. Spotify does this well. Apple Music doesn’t even try. Mixed in with their – at this time – unwillingness to figure out what are quality albums in their artist pages, and it just feels too hard to get to what I want sometimes.
And then there are the bugs. I haven’t gotten into those deeply, and I won’t now, especially since they’re primarily centered around the iTunes application rather that the iOS app. But they are severe enough that using the service sometimes is frustrating at times, and it gives the impression that the underlying technology is very fragile. There’s a certain amount of trust that we need to have in a service like this – especially when it’s messing with our own personal music files – and right now, Apple Music can be pretty rough.
If these things were improved, then Apple Music could be tremendous for classical music discovery. It has a ways to go yet though. I know the service is new, but these things should still be pointed out. At this point, Spotify is the more robust option for finding classical music. That could change, but Apple’s success here really depends how quickly they patch these sore points.