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March 27, 2005

iPod on Classics

The reference work for the development of the CD was allegedly Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; the reference work for the development of MP3 was Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner". And therein lies a world of difference. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported on how the digital music revolution is working out for classical fans -- not very well, as it turns out.

Online music retailers (i.e., Apple) have been slow to add classical selections to their catalogs, of course, and the gaps players insert between tracks are surely irritating for classical listeners. The article doesn't feature any comments about the suitability of MP3 compression to classical music, which surprises me; it's the most common complaint I've heard among classical fans.

But the more interesting problem the article raises for me is the way MP3 players (both hardware and software) are optimized for pop music. The IA paradigm of pop music (artist, album, track) doesn't exactly map to classical: the album is not necessarily the appropriate higher-order element for the track, and a vital piece of metadata, the composer, is ignored entirely.

MP3's ID3 metadata format allows most of this data to be captured, but players generally don't allow you to see these additional fields, never mind organize your music according to these characteristics. The WSJ piece talks about some of the metadata hacks classical fans have come up with in order to access their music in meaningful ways within the iPod's strict artist/album/track hierarchy.

The success of the iPod is due in no small part to Apple's refusal to overload it with features. But it seems like there ought to be a way for the iPod to support the very different information and interaction model of this audience. And if Apple won't do it, I wonder if there's a market opportunity for a competing player optimized for classical music listening -- like the Pez players, carving out a competitive niche by going places Apple can't or won't.

[Update: Dan Says in the comments that you can indeed browse by composer on the iPod, but not by default. I found some advice on MP3 tagging for classical fans that confirms this, but the article says you can't browse by composer in iTunes, which isn't exactly true -- you can right-click the column headings to configure which fields are displayed. So it seems at least some of the functionality is there, if somewhat hidden.]

<=> | March 27, 2005


There are very good reasons why classical music and MP3s don't jive very well: besides sound quality (there's a good reason why many classical music fans also happen to be audiophiles and prefer vinyl and CD), there's the whole Apple's Music Store selling model, which if you look closely, is heavily built around the pop singles market - not whole albums as classical recordings have always been. (You can buy those on iTMS too - but the whole process is not as intuitive as popping up 99 cents for a Top 40 single).

Posted by: beto | Mar 28, 2005 9:43:58 AM

That's really interesting, Jesse - couldn't agree more ... And something I scribbled down a couple of years ago ( - also related is lack of metadata around jazz ( I guess this applies to most non-mainstream musics, essentially.

I talked to Apple a month or so ago and they expressed mild interest in extending the metadataset to facilitate classical music but they do see problems around lack of 'industry standards' in this area. I also think it's fair to say that they really do want to retain focus on the point you note about not overloading their devices/interfaces with features ...

Still, it leads to several entire areas of music, with vast numbers of listeners (not to mention swathes of 'industry'), being poorly-served, with potentially awful consequences as noted in Wayne Bremer's article linked to above ...

Posted by: Dan Hill | Mar 29, 2005 3:36:39 AM

Am I missing something? iTunes does allow you to specify the composer of a classical piece, and the iPod allows you to browse by the same (although it's not turned on by default).

Posted by: dansays | Mar 30, 2005 6:47:05 AM

My hack: Create a smart playlist with filter composer / does not contain / {blank}

Posted by: Livia | Apr 4, 2005 2:09:12 PM


I'd just like to point out that by default, iTunes uses AAC encoding (not MP3) to rip CDs and AAC is also the codec used at the music store. It's much better than MP3, although I can't say I have any studies to cite about MP3 vs. AAC for classical specifically.

Subjectively, I notice a huge difference between MP3 and AAC, and AAC *always* sounds better to my ears. (Sound quality on MP3 only gets better if you set the MP3 ripper to the mega-high quality modes that will eat up your HD too quickly.)

So for most iPod+iTunes users at least, this shortcoming of MP3 is not so important, possibly irrelevant in many cases.

What do classical fans have to say about AAC?

Posted by: nerkles | Apr 4, 2005 3:56:05 PM

I use an iRiver machine H300 with 20GB HD. All music in ogg format and it's splendid, sounds more vivid even at low bitrates and is great for classical music. Even plays movies (^_^), but that aside. And has a database function for saving composers and stuff. So you should sell your iPod!!!

Posted by: Albert Willemsen | May 31, 2005 4:30:38 AM

I find it's quite easy to select music by composer on iPod, but what you can't do is see the composer's name on the "Now Playing" screen. This can be frustrating if e.g. you're playing some kind of compilation album with mutliple composers, and all you can see on the screen is "Festival Te Deum" or "Piano concerto no. 1" and the name of an abum and performer.

Posted by: Rob Edlin-White | Nov 29, 2006 7:42:22 AM

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