On Classical Music Tagging (ID3 tags) for iTunes and iPod

When it comes to organizing for iTunes and iPod, classical music is an entirely different animal than the “pop” formula the program is primarily designed for. Why tie yourself to an inefficient and illogical "album" model when classical works were never meant to be treated that way? iTunes allows you to appreciate individual works as they were conceived and executed: as individual, stand-alone works.


Example of my tagging structure (click to see full size).

I recently ran across Musicbrainz’s classical music tagging structure. Musicbrainz provides a database from which to retrieve the proper ID3 tags for artists, album, song title, etc. It’s like the CDDB (gracenote), but rather than using the CD song data, Musicbrainz-compatible programs generate an ‘audio footprint’ to compare against. This helps ensure that the tag result you are given is specifically matched to a particular song.

The system works pretty well and is useful when CDDB gives you a load of garbage. It is also useful for making sure your song tags are consistent with those of other people. Sites like Last.fm, which tracks your listening habits and connects you to similar fans and artists, are made possible only when everyone is submitting the same data.

That works great for pop/rock/jazz, where the music was created by and for one particular artist. The system becomes more difficult when dealing with classical music. I’m not the first person to discuss how to shoehorn the vastly different nature of classical tags into a scheme that is very much designed for popular music (as evidenced by many many discussion threads and, of course, the existence of the Musicbrainz guidelines itself). But, I take issue with the Musicbrainz solution because it is unfriendly to iPod users.

Classical music tags have to keep track of a more diverse set of data for music that has been created by and for many people. Whereas a Pearl Jam record contains songs written, performed and released by Pearl Jam, a recording of The Planets might contain music written by Holst, performed by the Montreal Symphony and conducted by Charles Dutoit. This recording, or portions of it, might be released on any number of albums or bundled with works of another composer (usually elgar). Indeed, the concept of an album was unknown to the vast majority to classical music composers. Each composition they created was intended to be a stand-alone work.

Classical music is an entirely different beast.

In addition to the standard artist, album and song name tags, iTunes’ composer, genre and comments tags are of equal importance to classical music tagging.

The Composer Tag

Let’s take a look at the Musicbrainz Classical Music Style Guide

  • Artist:

    • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Album title:

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra feat. conductor: Herbert von Karajan)

    Track titles:

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor: I. Allegro ma non troppo

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor: II. Molto vivace

Immediately, I see a problem for iPod users. Musicbrainz advocates that the composer be listed under the artist tag. That might work fine if you’re only a casual classical listener and you’ve only got one Beethoven CD mixed in with your Beck records. To that type of listener, the fact the music might be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic is secondary to the fact that it has Ode To Joy on it.

But for the devotee, who may have several recordings of the same piece by different orchestras or performers, that’s not going to cut it. Besides, after receiving complaints and requests, Apple deliberately added the composer tag to iTunes specifically to hold the composer info. Thus, it makes sense to put the composer in the composer field, leaving the artist field open for other, more appropriate, uses.

With the composer listed in the correct field, it’s a simple matter of browsing by composer on my iPod to find a particular composer’s work. Likewise, in iTunes, I can easily create a Smart Playlist with all of Mahler’s music by setting the conditions to:

Composer contains Mahler

Or if I want all my classical music on a single playlist:

Composer is not "blank"

It’s simple and it works. Unfortunately, Musicbrainz does not support the composer tag, so there’s no way to reconcile that aspect of the two schemes.

The Artist Tag

With the composer assigned, what goes in the Artist field? The two likely choices are the conductor and the performer (soloist or ensemble) of the work. I prefer to list the performer as the artist, with orchestras listed by their organizational names, omitting the conductor or featured soloists. the reason I prefer it this way is simplicity of display.

The iPod’s screen only displays so many lines of listings and only so many characters per line. If I were to customize each performing ensemble with the conductor and/or soloist (as in the Musicbrainz album model), not only would my artist tags be overly long, but I’d run the potential of my iPod displaying:

Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...

And I wouldn’t have a clue which listing refers to which specific combination of orchestra, conductor or soloist. Plus those multiple listings would just clutter up everything else in the artist list. I certainly don’t want to have to scroll past six different "Berlin Philharmon…"s and five different "Chicago Symphony…"s while browsing my iPod.

So, the Artist tag in my scheme becomes simply Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Besides, when navigating my iPod, I rarely search for classical music by performer; if I want to hear Holmboe’s 9th, I’ll browse the composer listing first.

so, composer = composer.
artist = performer (simplified).

The Album Tag

What of the Album tag, then? It makes no sense to maintain the compact disc paradigm when dealing with the flexibility of the iTunes model and the nature of classical music. Just because Deutsche Grammophon decides to put both Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Symphony No 5 on the same disc doesn’t mean I should maintain that structure. As I mentioned above, classical works were created distinctly and separately. Thus, I keep my classical music separated by work title.

Thanks to the instant availability of any song in the iTunes/iPod equation, I don’t need to load the physical disc of Atlanta Symphony’s Rainbow Body in order to listen to Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I can just browse for

Music > Composer > Copland > Appalachian Spring [ASO:Spano]

Ta da! Instant music.

This method works quite well, but I’ve discovered that for this scheme to function properly, I have to use a specific syntax for album names/work titles.

Back when my classical collection was small enough that I only had a single recording of a piece, my album tag for Mahler’s 6th Symphony would look like this:

Symphony No 6 "Tragic"

If I browse

Composer > Mahler >

I’ll see a list of works

Symphony No 1...
Symphony No 3...
Symphony No 6...

I discovered a problem with this method when Mahler’s No 6 became one of my favorite orchestral pieces and I obtained a second recording of it. Using the same album tag for both the Philharmonia’s version and the Berlin Philharmonic’s version made iTunes/iPod confuse them for the same album. My solution was to add an abbreviation of the performer at the end of the title.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s entry looks like this:

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [BPO]

While the Philharmonia’s is this

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [PO]

Now I have separate entries for each performance. Hooray! Problem solved… Unless I have more than one recording of the same piece by the same ensemble but with a different conductor. Once again, this problem popped up with Mahler’s 6th. I have 2 recordings of it by the Chicago Symphony, one conducted by Abbado and another conducted by Solti. The solution, however, is quite simple: add the conductor after the ensemble name.

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [PO: Zander]

Now each performance has a unique identifier that iTunes displays separately and is easy to navigate via iPod.

Drawbacks (3rd-generation iPods and earlier)

This system works, but it isn’t perfect. For one thing, the specific details at the end of work titles gets cut off on older iPod screens, resulting in:

Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...

In addition to a screen size that shows more characters of a selection, 4th-generation iPods (iPod photo) and later scroll long file names when they are highlighted, eliminating this problem. However, iPhones and iPod Touch do not scroll long names when viewing by Artist or Composer.

Categories, Styles and Genres

Ok, we’ve covered composer, work title, performer and conductor. What’s left? Categories. Organizing classical music is no easy task. There are numerous types of works of various eras and styles and opinions vary what counts as what. How ever you choose to organize you classical music is a matter of individual preference. I’m not too particular, choosing to keep things relatively simple. Generally, I take information from AllMusic’s classical music database to create the Genre tag using the era and format of the music.

Romantic Symphony
Modern Ballet
Contemporary Suite for Orchestra

I do this primarily to take advantage of iTunes’ smart playlists. If I feel like listening to some Romantic-era concertos, all I have to have to do is set up a playlist with these conditions:

Genre contains romantic
Genre contains concerto

Likewise, if I’m in a symphonic mood but not in a particularly romantic mood, I can set it as follows:

Genre contains symphony
Genre does not contain romantic

Track Titles, Comments and Year

Track titles are straightforward enough. Unlike the Musicbrainz model that would create yet another list of seemlingly identical track names, I simply put the movement number and title. I also put the movement number in the track number.

I use the comments field to include notes about the performance, including a featured soloist if necessary.

And lastly, I use the year tag for the year of the performance, not the year the piece was first published or composed. This helps me keep the context of the recording in mind when selecting and listening to a piece. I’ve found ArkivMusic’s catalog to be quite useful for tracking down dates.


That tagging structure again (click to see full size).

Well, there’s my take on it. If you made it this far, then I hope this was helpful. My goal here is to keep track of essential data, while leaving my library simple enough to find and navigate efficiently in an iTunes/iPod environment. I think I’ve succeeded in that regard. It certainly works for me. However, if you’d like some other perspectives, try these links:


soundtrack for a car wash and oil change

At times, i really resent owning a car. Yeah they’re convenient necessary for getting around, but with the fueling and maintenance and cleaning and well, effort that goes into having one, there are times when I’d just as soon not have one. (Oh, for a more vibrant public transportation system in metro Atlanta.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a ’99 saturn sc2 (aka "the cherry bomb"–it’s red) and I love it; I’ll probably hang on to it until the day it stops working. To that end, I try to treat it right. Thanks to car-pooling, it’s taken me five and a half months to put not-quite-3000 miles on my vehicle, so it was definitely time for an oil change and quarterly car wash.

Normally, when there’s music to be heard wafting through the neighborhood’s air, it’s some kind of bass-thumping or mexican oompah. On a couple occasions there’s even been some adult contemporary. But today was my turn to be the obnoxious boombox on the block.

And I’m sure the stuff I was playing is not the kind of stuff it’s used to hearing. To start things, I cranked Can’s Ege Bamyasi. This is one of the records that changed my perspective on music and I discovered it in a roundabout way.

For a number of years in the late 90s I maintained a website devoted to helping me keep track of all the various b-sides, covers, and unreleased ecetera from my favorite artists at the time. When you’re a collector, those types of things are important and I figured that others could benefit from my work as well as offer me updates.

One of the more challenging artists in the project was Beck, whose catalog was, even then, extensive and diverse, parts of which are pretty obscure. At one point, I read that he had covered a song called I’m So Green by a group called Can. I hadn’t heard of it and couldn’t locate a copy of it, so I just filed it away on the list and carried on. to this day, I’ve only been able to track down a 1-minute excerpt from it.

ege bamyasi by can

Cut to a couple years later, when in the summer of 2000, I was researching my-new-and-to-this-day-favorite-band Mouse on Mars, who cited Can as one of their musical influences. Inspired by this coincidence, I found a copy of I’m So Green and the album it appears on. I was instantly hooked and Ege Bamyasi quickly became one of my top albums (Six of its seven tracks are rated 5 stars).

That thing that amazed me though and changed my musical perspective was that the record was released in 1972, a number of years before I was born. While I considered a lot of music from before my lifetime to be "respectable" I had never really accepted that it could be good. This album convinced me otherwise and the timespan represented in my library has extended much.


On to the oil change. This was my first unassisted oil change in quite sometime, so I had to re-teach myself how to do it. The theory is simple enough; the practice… well that takes practice. It took a little bit longer than expected, but I got to serenade the neighbors with Mahler’s Symphony No 6 "Tragic" performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while I figured it out.

To say that I like this symphony would be a dramatic understatement. I own nine different recordings of it (the Philharmonia’s is my favored and the Berlin Philharmonic’s is exceptional, as is this CSO performance under Abbado). At nearly 90 minutes in length, it is a symphony that takes dedication and perseverance to get through, but it is an edge-of-the-seat roller-coaster of raw power and emotion that sucks you in from the first measure and never lets go.

Originally published may 2001.

Experimental rock band Can was always several steps ahead of its contemporary music scene, exploring frontiers of rock music that wouldn’t become popular for another 10 to 20 years. Formed in Cologne, Germany, in 1968, Can (bassist Holger Czukay, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, guitarist Michael Karoli, and drummer Jaki Liebzeit) was dedicated to tinkering with song construction methods and unorthodox arrangements, often incorporating noise, analog synthesizers, and experimental recording techniques. By the early 70s, Can had emerged into an experimental music community that included such pioneers as Neu!, Faust and Tangerine Dream.

Though rooted in the German rock scene, Can gravitated more toward minimalism (and even ambience), abstaining from the industrial bent that marked many of the group’s contemporaries, most notably Kraftwerk, preferring a musical formula that was closer to, but still divergent from, traditional rock. Despite its relative obscurity in America, Can has been cited by a wide range of artists as an influence, including Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Tortoise, and Mouse On Mars, as well as mainstream rockers Beck and Radiohead and scores of electronic musicians.

Recorded at the height of the “Suzuki Era” (so-named for then-singer Damo Suzuki, an expatriated Japanese street poet, who betrays not a hint of ethnicity), “Ege Bamyasi” shows Can at its most avant-conventional, delivering an amazing set that still holds its own against many of today’s more technologically sophisticated artists.

The pneumatic “Pinch” opens the record, trading slide whistle expressions with Suzuki’s ambiguous vocalizing over what amounts to a free jazz-inspired funky nine-minute rhythm section solo. Pinch fades into “Sing Swan Song,” a melancholic pseudo-waltz that effortlessly floats from the speaker. “One More Night” resumes the pace, driven by a simple, but mesmerizing head-bobbing groove, while Suzuki ponders the delusions of being alive for “one more Saturday night.”

Time feels as though it’s running out on “Vitamin C” as Leibzeit’s militaristic drums combine with a spring-wound tick-tock bass to deliver Suzuki’s ominous message: “You’re losing your Vitamin C; You’re losing your mind.” Czukay’s muted bass takes center stage on “Soup,” contributing to one of Can’s trademark rhythm explorations, before dissolving into sporadic and independent expressions of noise from each of the band members. Contrasting the proceeding cacophony, “I’m So Green” provides Ege Bamyasi with its most accessible song. Powered by an infectious proto-techno beat, it is easily the highlight of the record. Closing the album is “Spoon,” an other-worldly bossa-nova that seemlessly marries psychedelia with exotic composition.

Despite the passage of nearly 30 years, Ege Bamyasi is as fresh a record as it was when it was released and remains a great starting point for those curious about Can or experimental German rock in general, as it is as listenable as it is groundbreaking.