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Classical Music and MP3 Players

July 6, 2009
Roscoe, N.Y.

For quite some time, I believed that it was impossible to use an MP3 player with classical music. I based this belief on the following evidence:

But I kept an open mind about the matter. About two years ago, I bought an 8-gig Zune, and on my last birthday, I replaced it with a 120-gig Zune. Much to my surpise I have discovered that it is indeed possible to get classical music into the Zune, and to play it back. Technically, it seems to work.

Otherwise, it's a constant struggle, and my original presumption was correct: You really can't use MP3 players with classical music.

The big problem is that MP3 players are structured around a paradigm — let's call it the Artist-Album-Song paradigm — that apparently works just dandy for commercial pop albums, but it pretty much a disaster for classical music.

For example, here's the hierarchy used to store and present music on MP3 players:

The Artist-Album hierarchy parallels the way in which CDs are shelved in a store, and songs are stored on the CD. But as you can easily confirm with a stroll through the Classical department of your local Tower Records your local Virgin Megastore J&R Music World in New York City, the rest of us don't shop that way. (Or check out, which more than any other site knows how to present classical music to the consumer.)

We prefer a hierarchy that looks more like this (and throughout this analysis I will use the term "Artist" to encompass individual performers, ensembles, and conductors with orchestras):

Notice the presence of the Composer, which is probably the major difference between classical music and commercial pop. In pop music, the composer is still extremely important — somebody always needs to write the music! — but is pretty much ignored by the music's consumers. (What infinitesimal percentage of Michael Jackson fans can actually name the songwriter behind "Thriller"?)

Notice the Artist is listed after the Composition but before the Movements. This hierarchy allows accessing the same Composition performed by different Artists.

And notice there's no Album in this hierarchy. The Album is a structural element in pop music, but an artifical construct in classical music.

As artificial constructs go, however, the Album has become one that's familiar and comfortable, so it would also be nice to access an Album that has been used to group related pieces by a single Composer played by a single Artist. Here's a recent example:

Notice how multiple Movements (corresponding to tracks on the album) are grouped into Compositions. Suppose you want to navigate to this Album on your MP3 player and play only the Concerto. There's no way to do it. There's no concept in either CDs or MP3 players that indicates that multiple tracks are bound together in a single Composition.

This is why the Shuffle or Random feature so popular on MP3 players is totally brain-dead for classical music listeners. Of course we would love to have a Random feature — but we want one that knows how to play entire compositions, not one that serves up one movement from one piece, another from another, and so forth.

The listing of Song titles by MP3 players is undoubtedly useful for listeners of pop music. The feature allows accessing a song independent of the Artist who recorded it or the Album that it appears on. For classical music, it's another brain-dead feature. Even having a list of Compositions in alphabetical order independent of Composer doesn't make much sense.

Of course, there are some classical albums — particularly those that fall under the category of recital albums — where the hierarchy used for pop music works OK. Here's one:

Such albums are often shelved in a store by Artist in much the same way as pop music, and we tend to listen to them as a whole because the Artist has put together a coherent recital of a selection of different music. But these are really the exceptions rather than the rule.

In ripping my CDs and getting them onto my Zune, I have yet to find a reasonable solution. At first I thought that I should edit the Artist field to indicate the Composer instead. (Some CDs rip like that anyway.) But then I realized that I would need to include the Artist in the Album information. Otherwise I would run the risk of having duplicate Artist and Album names, which can make the ripping and organizational software think they're actually the same.

Instead, I decided to integrate the Composer name in the Album field so it reads something like "Schubert: String Quintet in C Major." (Many CDs rip like that.) But this means I find myself scrolling through a bunch of albums of music from the same composer. (My Zune includes the 37 Hyperion CDs of Schubert lieder, for example.) The list should be a hierarchy.

It is also possible to use external software to group individual movements into single composition files. This also helps eliminate those little moments of silence helpfully inserted to pad tracks in MP3 files that become horrifying interruptions in long orchestral movements or opera. But the last thing I need is to devote a lot of additional fritter when ripping CDs; it's bad enough battling the often missing or incorrect textual information — mistakes that are often compounded in multi-CD sets.

Of course, in the wider scheme of things, the big question is: Who cares? We all know that people who listen to classical music constitute about one-one thousandth of 0.001% of the population, so the number of people trying to get classical music on their MP3 players totals out to about four — apparently me and three other losers. (And worse, we also get branded as "elitist" in some circles — in these days about as deadly a label as "communist" or "sodomite" had for earlier generations.) Corporations like Apple and Microsoft surely aren't going to worry about such a miniscule part of their market. That's not where the money is, and the Ayn Randish philosophy that pervades the computer industry actually mandates that nothing special be done for classical music if it doesn't result in more bucks.

But the promotion of technology that is actually hostile to classical music will only make the situation worse. Suppose the Kindle let you read James Paterson with ease but not Jane Austen. Wouldn't people consider that a severe deficiency? Why is it any different with music?

So unless somebody wants to make the argument that a 400-year music tradition should be bulldozed over and forgotten, the very least we should expect is a technology that conforms to the way we actually listen to this music.


I cannot agree more - while using the meta-data from the MP3 ID3 tag is useful, the oversight of simple folders for organization is criminal. In the late 90's (known as PreIpod to some) I ripped my vast CD collection to MP3, including Pop, Classical, Comedy Albums, etc. I created various folders and subfolders to organize each category as I felt best, for me to find my music. I've had an iPod and now a Zune, and neither device nor software provide the ability to navigate my collection by simple directory tree.

I find this to be a worse oversight than the fact both Zune and iPod do not have a simple mono setting, helping out those of us who are deaf in one ear from having to carry around adapters from Radio Shack.

Btw, I had thought it was Quincy Jones, but upon a wikipedia search learned I was wrong.

Michael C. Neel, Mon, 6 Jul 2009 13:15:51 -0400 (EDT)

Right on! I actually had a very similar discussion about this topic with my wife a month or so ago. At first I thought that this "gap" was a great opportunity to be filled in the marketplace, but as you illustrate I'm not sure there is enough demand for anyone to do anything about it. My only hope is that some quantum leap will take place in modern or pop music that requires us to think differently about the limitations of mp3/ID3 tagging. In other words, the current way of tagging/categorizing music needs to be made obsolete to the masses. New artistic formats/mediums may be the only way to make this happen. Surely new innovations in art and music will keep happening. Orchestral music probably can't be brought back to popularity, but sufficient electronic tagging for orchestral music may be made better through changes in mainstream music. I can barely speculate on what those changes could possibly be.

mike hodnick, Mon, 6 Jul 2009 13:24:37 -0400 (EDT)

I can't speak to the Microsoft world, as I use iTunes and my iPod (5th-generation) even on my Windows machines. However, Apple does provide some amount of comfort, if not he exact desired hierarchy.

iTunes, like many other grid-based systems, allows you to customize the displayed columns. You can bring in, for example, the composer column. When ripping music, iTunes uses CDDB (I believe) to look up what you're ripping -- and, at least for me, has done a phenomenal job of populating the composer data. (Including both classical and "popular" -- I prefer the term modern -- music.) The iPod allows you to browse the hierarchy thusly: Music->Composer->Album->Song. Not quite as good as desired, but moderately close.

I'm actually surprised to hear that the Zune doesn't support something like this, to be honest -- I'd just assumed it worked the same way. Again, I can't speak to this with certainty -- I've never liked the Zune, nor Windows Media Player, and thus very rarely use either.

I will agree that the default rip settings are insufficient for classical (and even some "popular" pieces, such as Pink Floyd's 1970s-era work). I generally rip at 192Kbps, and on certain pieces will rip at 320Kbps, which is not quite lossless, but is quite good for most of the equipment I tend to play on.

John Rudy, Mon, 6 Jul 2009 13:48:20 -0400 (EDT)

> both classical and "popular" -- I prefer the term modern -- music

I dislike the term "classical music" because to me "classical" refers to the period between the death of Bach and the death of Haydn. I'd prefer just using the two terms "music" and "pop." The term "modern music" is not good at all to describe pop! Otherwise, what term do you use for the music of Pierre Boulez, Morton Feldman, John Adams, Philip Glass, George Crumb, Thomas Ades, Henryk Gorecki, etc, etc, etc? — Charles

When you say that 0.001% of MP3 users totals 4 people I think perhaps you mean 0.001% of Zune users!!

Sorry, I couldn't resist such a cheap shot.


— David Heffernan, Mon, 6 Jul 2009 14:10:00 -0400 (EDT)

If you want to use Media Player then do the following:

a. Edit the ID3 tags to define the composer for each piece.

b. Define the performing artist (potentially the contributing artist as well).

c. Instead of using "Albums" just use the name of the composition as the name of the album, avoiding the artificial clusterings that you are afraid of.

When viewing your library on Media Player, right click on the headers and select "Customize Navigation Pane". There select "Composer" for the Music category, and also include the fields for the mobile/sync devide at the bottom.

Then simply sort by composer and you will have your music organized in the way that you want.

— Anonymous, Mon, 6 Jul 2009 14:25:05 -0400 (EDT)

My first statement in this issue is that MP3 and classical music are an oxymoron. The compression procedure of a wave file to make it smaller, significantly smaller as an MP3 considerably reduces the quality of the music. That's a fact, and listening to the same piece of classical music first in wave then in MP3 format convinced me, that MP3 was not for me.

So the "Artist-Album-Song" can stay with MP3, but they are completely useless with classical music.

I already come up with an Excel file, where I store the information of my 750 classical CD's. This way I can find any music I want in half a minute using my list.

—, Tue, 7 Jul 2009 00:00:08 -0400 (EDT)

I hope this is a prelude to one of the world's great programmers creating an application that does this right.

I care little (yet) for MP3/WMA versions of my CDs, but I'd be willing to digitize just to have the option of listening ONLY to the three movements of Barber's string quartet and not whatever else got thrown onto the CD; ONLY to the movements of Beethoven's whatever symphony and not whatever else got thrown onto the CD.

Grimaud's recent albums, I hope you'll agree, are marvelous "concept albums," where the classical elements are deliberately mixed. While I would most gladly accept Ms Grimaud as my personal DJ, I'm more likely to have the chance to entertain Mr Petzold's Classical Ripper in that role, and I look forward to it...

— Michael Broschat, Tue, 7 Jul 2009 12:32:02 -0400 (EDT)

One of my very favorite CDs is Hélène Grimaud's recording of the Brahms Op. 116-119, played consecutively and in order and shaping these little pieces into what almost seems like an episodic four-movement piano symphony.

There are certainly ways to do what you'd like to do right in Windows Explorer. Post-rip, you can copy stuff into different directories, and then alter the ID3 metadata. (Select files, right click, Properties.) But it just raises the fritter factor to an intolerable degree.

You can also use Playlists, but on the Zune, you just get a list of them all. You can't arrange them in any type of hierarchy.

I'd love to take a shot at coding a good easy ripping system for classical music, but I'm at that stage in my life and career where working on a large project without reimbursement will lead to homelessness. — Charles

My brother has a similar problem with Jazz. He might want to listen to music where the bass player was Charlie Mingus. As Jazz is often an improvised performance, the list of "composers" might be equal to the number of performers, but most MP3 systems don't allow for a list of artist-(and-instrument) to be included and searched by.

Howard Ricketts, Wed, 8 Jul 2009 04:23:57 -0400 (EDT)

This problem is actually worse. I had to "redo" "Live Licks" album (Rolling Stones) into a playlist to get it on iPod correctly.

I wish I could get rid of iTunes altogether - for an audiophile, it is a road block. On a PC, iTunes is a horrible application, on a Mac it is somewhat bearable.

Yes, I know, MP3 players are not marketed to power users but to other, more numerous users.

There are some initiatives to "hack" iPod/iPhone to allow direct upload of music to these devices without iTunes.

SamG, Wed, 8 Jul 2009 13:09:23 -0400 (EDT)

Well besides Composition, ID3v2 tags have most of what you're looking for including Movement. Maybe you can build a WPF music player of your own that can play mp3s and read the ID metatags so you can show them in any heirarchy you want :)

— Harlequin, Wed, 8 Jul 2009 22:53:28 -0400 (EDT)

> Maybe you can build a WPF music player of your own

And if I can then download that into the Zune, I'd be in great shape! — Charles

Your organizational analysis is excellent, and I will pass it on to Roger Press at, my favourite site on the Web. Two years ago they had 50,000 classical CDs on line which you could listen to without limit for $8.95 a month. No idea how many now, but lots! Also jazz and world.

But being musicians they have no idea of how to organize things, and suffer from songitis much as you describe.

— David Ford, Wed, 8 Jul 2009 23:34:27 -0400 (EDT)

That's why people who actually listen to classical music like so much. We feel we're among friends there. On other sites, we feel like we're among idiots. — Charles

Seems like a market opportunity to me. What about a solid state music player that used a lossless compression format (FLAC anyone?), and a smart catalog application. Perhaps not large enough for Apple, or Microsoft, but there's certainly a market out there.

Alec Saunders, Thu, 9 Jul 2009 10:19:57 -0400 (EDT)

Charles - do you know anything about Gracenotes CMI product? Just stumbled across it. It contains the kinds of information you are looking for. Wonder if any media player applications can work with it.

Alec Saunders, Thu, 9 Jul 2009 13:43:37 -0400 (EDT)

"but we want one that knows how to play entire compositions, not one that serves up one movement from one piece, another from another, and so forth."

Me too, but you and I are weird. Maybe I've read different historical assertions than you have, but here's what I've read: In the era when that music was written, concerts served up one movement from one piece, another from another, and so forth.

"people who listen to classical music constitute about one-one thousandth of 0.001% of the population, so the number of people trying to get classical music on their MP3 players totals out to about four"

Huh? One one-thousandth of 0.001% of the population is about 14 not 4. (Of course that's not talking about the population of the world. That's parochially talking about, without saying, the country where those MP3 players are made.)

— Bach to the feature, Fri, 10 Jul 2009 00:00:07 -0400 (EDT)

> In the era when that music was written, concerts served up one movement from one piece, another from another, and so forth.

Fortunately, the New York Philharmonic just went online with a complete database of its programs going back to the 1842-43 season (at, so you can test your theory for at least this era. You'll find, for example, that Beethoven's 3rd Symphony shows up in 275 performances between 1843 and 2008, and well over 90% of the time, they played the entire symphony, including the 9 times they performed the work between 1843 and 1864.

But I won't claim they didn't applaud between the movements. — Charles

@Alec Saunders

>What about a solid state music player that used a lossless compression format (FLAC anyone?)

The Zune natively supports WMA Lossless files. The Rockbox third party firmware supports FLAC on an assortment of players, including various flavors of the iPod.

— GrumpyYoungMan, Sat, 11 Jul 2009 18:44:08 -0400 (EDT)

My iPod is a healty mix between Classical and Pop, and What I'd tried to do was use the "Composer" metadata field exclusively for Classical as an alternative to the artist/album browser. The problem I kept running into with this was that pop albums fill this with useful but distracting lists (Lennon, McCartney, Starr vs Starr, Lennon) and this cluttered up the listing. So even if I'd gotten all Bach compositions into a common naming format, id' have to either sacrifice or suffer through endless pop composer lists. So I gave up.

What would be great is some an alternative browser built into the player that supports a navigation scheme similar to the one you describe. They do this now for Audiobooks (granted, those are a bit easier)... I think an alternative or extended tag scheme may be required as well though...

Also, this post reminded me of a very good article written by Alex Ross in the New Yorker a while back about the positive impact of the web on Classical Music:

Stuart, Sun, 12 Jul 2009 18:41:50 -0400 (EDT)

An easy partial solution to this is to rip the pieces in such a way that all the movements of a piece are in the same MP3 file. I do that all the time.

I then put the composer in the Artist field and I put the musician's names, if there are few enough of them, in the comment field and sometimes I also add them after the title of the piece in the title field. I do this last for pieces where I have more than one performance.

The file name is usually in the following form:

Composer - Title - Performer.MP3. I don't see that in most players but it helps keep things organized. I use Windows Explorer to put files on the player.

It's not perfect and it doesn't cover all situations but by and large it works fairly well.

— Barry, Thu, 23 Jul 2009 22:03:10 -0400 (EDT)

I still can't get over the fact that I can carry Bach in my pocket and listen to it while hiking my favorite places. Sometimes it's transcendental, mp3 or no.

So much delight and convenience is worth some small effort, eh?

— Mike, Thu, 6 Aug 2009 17:48:01 -0400 (EDT)

As a musicologist by training, what else can I say other than, "I feel your pain?" Actually, plenty.

First, Charles, I agree with your reluctance to use the term "classical." Historical, it's probably more accurate to refer to the repertory in question as the "art-music tradition," sometimes prefaced with yet another qualifying adjective (for example, "European" or "Western"). That's not to disparage other repertories that use the term "art," such as "art rock." Rather, the term is a translation of the German "Kunstmusik," a category that emerged in the early nineteenth century to refer to a specific set of social practices involving the intense contemplation of a set of acoustical cultural artifacts.

For that matter, the categories traditionally used for historical periodization--"medieval," "renaissance," "baroque," "classical," "romantic," and "modern"--have deservedly fallen into disrepute, not least because they fail to do just to the phenomena at hand. (In the early nineteenth century, commentators such as E.T.A. Hoffmann regarded Mozart's G-minor Symphony, K. 550, as "romantic.") Many music historians today prefer to use temporal designations ("late eighteenth-century music"). Increasingly, music historians use "the long nineteenth century" to refer to the period bounded by the French Revolution and World War I.

Practices of performing multi-movement works integrally and continuously have also changed. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it wasn't unusual to split up a symphony over the course of a concert. Yet as the notions emerged of the "genius" and the musical artwork "in the emphatic sense" (as the music historian Carl Dahlhaus described it), performance practices changed. By the middle or late nineteenth century, integral, continuous performance had become the norm. We can regard, say, the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner as composed for such situations.

I'm not sure when applause between movements disappeared, but I do recall that one of Gustav Mahler's more controversial moves was to ban applause during the performance of operas. Again, the notion of the musical work demanding aesthetic contemplation is key here: the performers were of secondary import; indeed, their roles were to be "interpreters" of musical texts.

As for portable music players and art music: I'm not a "hi-fi" kind of guy, so I'm usually not too disturbed by the sound quality of a good MP3 file. I usually rip my music at 320kbps, and I frequently buy from, the Deutsche Grammophon web shop, and (Still, if I can find the CD for cheaper than the MP3, I'll buy that and rip it.)

For most orchestral and chamber music, I've not found the the tagging to be a problem, but, then, I've worked out my own solutions with which I've become comfortable. For example, I identify Bernstein's two Mahler 3rd recordings with the New York Philharmonic in the Album field as "Mahler, Symphony No. 3 (Bernstein, NYPO [196?])" and "Mahler, Symphony No. 3 (Bernstein, NYPO [198?])." In short, I have a convention that works.

Of course, I'd appreciate it if there were, say, a web service for tagging classical recordings according to some such convention. Hmmmmm...sounds like a neat open source project.

musicologyman, Fri, 7 Aug 2009 10:51:28 -0400 (EDT)

I'm about to purchase my first MP3 player, to use for classical music (of course!). So, I'd like to hear some comments regarding what brand/model I should purchase. Thanks! NEO

— NEO, Mon, 9 Nov 2009 21:34:23 -0500

I also am looking to buy an MP3 player for classical music. It seems to me that a couple of years ago one could at least find one that used directories (folders) to organize the files, but I can't find one now. Does anyone know of something I am missing? That works well for me for MP3 CDs that I play in my car.

— Gary, Wed 18 Nov 2009 15:44:47 -0500

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