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Classical Music Being "Phased Out"

May 27, 2010
Roscoe, N.Y.

If you're one of those pathetic losers who still listens to classical music, it's time to let it go. Delete your Mahler MP3's, wipe your Wagner WMA's, burn your Copland CD's, smash your Vivaldi vinyl, and get yourself some Justin Bieber. I know it'll be painful at first. But with repeated listening your brain will soften into a pudding-like consistency, and soon you'll find yourself immersed in the warm blissful bath of his adorableness.

I'm afraid to report that classical music is being "phased out." You might try to hold on, but it's best to give up voluntarily and just go with the flow.

Don't get me wrong: You'll probably still be able to buy classical CDs and digital audio files. But trying to access and play the music on modern devices will drive you nuts. In a blog entry last year I complained about the blatant hostility of digital music players to classical music. More recently I was stunned to discover that the "Smart DJ" feature of the Zune desktop software had complete ignorance of Gustav Mahler!.

Only one thing still gave me hope for the future of classical music on digital devices. That one ray of hope was the Edit Album Info dialog in that same Zune desktop software. This is the screen that comes up when you want to edit information about a CD that you've already ripped:

Will you look at that! It's hard to believe there's a field that actually lets you enter Composer information, both for the album as a whole and for individual tracks. And over at the right is even a field for the Conductor! At least somebody at Microsoft has a little sympathy for us and designed a dialog to make us happy.

And then I had a brilliant idea: I knew that this same Zune desktop software was going to interface with Windows Phone 7, and I knew that we'd be able to play music on the phone. Why don't I write an alternative music-presentation program with Silverlight using classes in the Microsoft.Xna.Framework.Media namespace? I could organize the user's music by Composer and Conductor.

This program would turn Windows Phone 7 into an digital audio player unlike any other, and I would emerge as a hero to that obstinate cadre of losers who still persist in listening to music composed prior to the invention of the fuzzbox.

But as I sharpened by coding fingers and opened a new Visual Studio project, harsh reality kicked me in the face. Here are the properties of the essential Album and Song classes that I'd need to access to organize and present the music:

WTF!?!?! What happened to the Composer? What happened to the Conductor?

It's very simple: The Zune desktop software lets you enter Composer and Conductor names, but that information is otherwise ignored. The Composer has been killed. Goodbye, Gustav Mahler. The Conductor has also been killed. Goodby, Leonard Bernstein. All that's left is the Artist, who now reigns supreme. Hello, Justin Bieber.

And so it goes. I know exactly what I want my program to do, but the APIs won't let me do it. I can't get the Composer or Conductor if the information has been deliberately suppressed.

Does that remind you of anything?

It should. We've all read George Orwell's 1984, I'm sure, and undoubtedly you remember the appendix about Newspeak. The idea behind Newspeak was that certain words (like "liberty") would be eliminated from the language so that certain concepts (like liberty) would no longer be expressable or even thinkable.

In the same way, Composer and Conductor information has been eliminated from the Album and Song classes on the Zune and Windows Phone 7 so that these concepts entirely disappear from the music. In effect, the music no longer has a composer or conductor!

And this is what I mean by classical music being "phased out." Between the design of the Edit Album Info dialog, and the definition of the Album and Song classes, Microsoft has deliberately wiped out essential components of our 500-year tradition of Western Music.

It's a gutsy move by Microsoft but I'm sure they know what they're doing. Otherwise, we would never have allowed them to have so much power.


your definition of classical music is disappointingly narrow and only makes you look like a moron to anyone who knows what classical music (or western art music, if it makes it seem less stilted) actually is.

and i cant hold back from one good go fuck yourself, for your smart-ass-ness.

— martin, Sun, 23 May 2010 18:56:21 -0400

Thank you for your critique.

I don't normally like the term "classical music," but I use it when it's convenient and people can figure out what I'm talking about. I don't think I've ever used the term "western art music." That sounds a little too pompous to me. I tend to think of the music in question more as a "tradition" that extends through (to mention only some notables in roughly chronological order) Gesauldo, Monteverdi, Purcell, Rameau, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Ives, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Boulez, Berio, Cage, Carter, Feldman, Ligeti, Crumb, Reich, Glass, Adams, Ades, Higdon, Hersch, and I apologize for omitting many others.

This is obviously a tradition with very many forms and styles but also several connective characteristics. Perhaps the greatest common characteristic involves placing a high value on written and preserved compositions that exist independent of any performance. Thus, the importance of preserving a Composer tag with the music.

I hope this clarifies my use of the regrettable term "classical music." — Charles

Hate to burst your conspiratorial bubble here, but that's the ID3 standard for MP3s:


It's the "ID3, V2 - Embedded Image Extensions" which contain the composor, conductor, band/orchestra, lyricist, media, tags (and more...)

I'm not sure why the extended ID3,V2 tags haven't been implemented yet, but there's nothing preventing you from inheriting the base class and adding support for ID3,V2 Extended.

— Alishah Novin, Sun, 23 May 2010 20:46:10 -0400

The Zune desktop software embeds Composer and Conductor information in the MP3 and WMA files. That is obvious. You can type Composer and Conductor information into the dialog and it's stored in the files.

The Album and Song classes are sealed. You cannot derive from them, and even if you could, there's no point in adding Composer and Conductor properties because you don't have access to the actual files. On the Zune or Windows Phone 7 device you can only access the files through these classes. — Charles

"On the Zune or Windows Phone 7 device you can only access the files through these classes."

Well there's your problem. You're trying to use the classical interface to those files. Don't you know that the classical music file interface is being phased out? The new file interface imbibes. The only accepted access is just imbiber.

— Decomposer, Mon, 24 May 2010 01:19:38 -0400

Tagging "Classical music" needs at least these extra fields (whatever you name them eg. Artist, Album Artist etc)


Band/Ensemble=Emerson quartet
Performer=Leon Fleisher
Work= Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34a

Composer=Gustav Mahler
Conductor=Oleg Caetani
Band/Ensemble=Robert Schumann Philharmonie
Performer=Helene Bernardy
Work= Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

Alex, Mon, 24 May 2010 07:12:23 -0400

Asking for an optimum tagging system for classical music might be unrealistic. I'd be happy just to get the information I type into the Zune desktop program available on Windows Phone 7. — Charles

It is possible to access those tags in Silverlight, although I think at this stage you'll need to parse the tags yourself or use an existing parser. There are a few open source implementations for .Net available.

Also, from what I understand the XNA APIs aren't available in Silverlight, they're are only available when writing an XNA app, which uses the .Net Compact Framework.

— Simmo, Mon, 24 May 2010 08:15:43 -0400

We all know that I'm talking about Windows Phone 7 programming, right?

In a Silverlight program for Windows Phone 7 it is possible to include a reference to the Microsoft.Xna.Framework assembly; it is then possible to create a new MediaLibrary object to access the music stored on the device. This is the only way a Windows Phone 7 application can get access to these files. It is not possible to access the actual files directly, so the tags can't be be pulled out of the file manually as you suggest, and it's not even clear if the tags are included in the files copied to the device.

— Charles

Uptight turd f*ckers like Martin up there are probably the reason classical music lovers have been ignored by the digital music ecosystem. I agree with you Charles. The lack of consistency in media metadata is frustrating. iTunes has some interesting metadata fields (like flags to skip when shuffling, per-track EQ settings, etc.) but Windows Media Player won't honor them and iTunes sucks fart particles.

Josh Einstein, Mon, 24 May 2010 09:47:43 -0400

This makes me wonder what other features of WP7 are "locked down" in its sandboxed programming model. Considering the entire WP7 device, I'm sure we have much more to worry about than just Composers and Conductors. All we have is the API, and the API is controlled by Microsoft.

Even if the popularity and availability of "classical music" recordings (and performances) declines to the point of its death, it will be very sad when we cannot adequately catalog it.

Mike H, Mon, 24 May 2010 10:57:39 -0400

You could always switch to itunes or Amarok

racy_rick, Mon, 24 May 2010 11:42:42 -0400

If I wanted to write an audio player that runs on the PC and displays music using the Composer tag, I can obviously do that myself. I don't need iTunes or Amarok or anything else. But the subject here is Windows Phone 7. — Charles

I've never been happy with the whole idea of the .NET CF or any of its derivatives. Its a parallel programming universe where you spend more time (and subsequently device memory) solving the problem of adding a critical feature you need that was removed from the framework due to space considerations.

Charles Feduke, Mon, 24 May 2010 13:32:11 -0400

OTOH, wouldn't you find the prospect of phone apps having the entire run of hardware and the file system just a little bit scary? — Charles

Unbound access to hardware and the file system... scary? It depends on if those apps are approved by your app store provider first I suppose. Is it even feasible for the app store provider to test all of these types of apps for security vulnerabilities or for malicious intent? I really don't know, but it does sound like a difficult task.

The trade off is a more powerful app. At this point, I'm really disliking the sandboxed programming model on mobile phones. I've been using an iPhone for a while now, and really dislike that its apps can't do things like maintain a network connection in the background. It keeps me from using the iPhone for anything that gets data from the internet. Closing and opening apps all the time is time consuming enough to be a pain to me. I understand that keeping network connections and apps open consumes resources, but I'd like to be the one who decides what apps are running and not have my device choose for me.

I have yet to try an Android, and I don't fully understand the Android programming model, but I'd like to see if the Android OS addresses these issues. And just to be thorough - I've never used a Win 6.x phone.

Mike H, Tue, 25 May 2010 15:10:40 -0400

I am afraid that most of hi-tech toys are not supposed to be purchased and used by people who prefers music (but not only music) which requires use of brain.

Sorry for saying this, but *ich kann nicht anders*.

— Nerevar, Tue, 1 Jun 2010 16:20:26 -0400

Wow, I am amazed at how rude some of the commentators here are. You are very liberal in your moderating of comments!

Great post, however I gave up on using any kind of music organizing software long time ago. There are just too many operating systems, mobile players, smartphones etc too keep it all organized. My classical music resides on a hard-drive under the folder name of "Composer - Title". I don't care for conductor much :-(

drozzy, Sun, 13 Jun 2010 22:08:15 -0400

The opening to this made me laugh because it's exactly how I felt when trying to choose an mp3 player recently. After a week of research, not only of the players but the software interfaces, I chose an iPod classic which arrived yesterday.

It was extremely important to be able to properly accommodate my classical music collection. I mean, Lady Gaga is easy. I can listen to that on anything. The AAS (or ASA) paradigm is great for that. But Mahler's Thousand needs a bit more love in the tagging and organizing department.

I wanted a Zune, and badly, but it wasn't the right choice for me personally. The iPod is working flawlessly with the tagging system I designed for myself (and tested in multiple media players - iTunes, WMP, MM, WA, etc). Not everyone has the same needs, and I tried to remind myself of that during the shopping experience. Hopefully the API specs will open up beyond that which you listed above. For now, I'd rather have no apps at all rather than a zillion apps that don't do what I need.

ChristaW, Sat, 26 Jun 2010 12:53:23 -0400

I'm glad that there are people that care about this.

Having basic comprehension of tags is very important, but I don't think it can be the whole solution.

Organising by composer and then other tags has the problem that CDs can contain works by multiple composers. Sometimes different composers and performers.

A folder system has the flexibility deal with this.

So a phone which does not allow the user to transfer and organize files in a file structure cannot be a good DAP.

So I am very dissapointed that WP7 has eliminated any common store of files, and with it USB mass storage.

— CSMR, Thu, 14 Oct 2010 22:02:18 -0400

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