I usually don't complain about Apple products, but man, I gotta
say... iTunes absolutely sucks for classsical music. I'm not talking
playback quality or anything, it's that the organizational features of
iTunes completely fail in the presence of any sort of composed music.
My iPhone is loaded up with a healthy proportion of classical music
for dog walks, and that turns out to be a wonderful listening
environment. So that's the situation I'm most concerned with here.
And it's this situation where the iTunes tagging data is an absolute
For one thing, there's only one "Classical" genre setting available.
That's not a big deal, it's easy enough for an individual user to add
"Baroque", "Opera", "Chamber", "Choral", and so forth, but it's
symbolic of a lack of respect for all composed music, and it's a bad
omen of what's to come. (Given the available genre's like
"Electronic", "Hip Hop", "Rap", "Techno", and "Trance", it's pretty
clear where their allegences lie.)
The Artist and Composer fields in the song data, at first sight, seem
reasonable. But classical libraries are always sorted by composer,
and the iPod/iPhone doesn't sort by composer, and even if it did it
would place Antonin Dvorak under A. The iPhone doesn't even display
the composer, so that field is useless.
Almost all classical works are multi-movement pieces, and they need to
be grouped as such. Now there is a Grouping field in iTunes, which
leads one to believe there's hope, but no, the Grouping field is more
notational and doesn't actually do anything useful. In fact it screws
up the song order, and the Grouping data isn't actually displayed on
On top of all this, the CDDB database data for classical albums isn't
even slightly consistent, so it is impossible to rip an album and not
hand-rework all of the song data. Typically you get something that
looks like this:
All is not lost, as I believe I've found a way to make this work. So
until Apple's iTunes folks get their act together, here's my approach.
Don's iTunes Tagging Method for Classical Music
Given that we have to work with what we've got, the goal is to make
iTunes work well, especially when listening on an iPod/iPhone. The
display size and options on the iPhone/iPod are limited, and we have
to make the best use of what we have.
The basic plan is to:
- Use the Artist field for both the composer and the performer.
- Split the albums up into works, and use the Album field for the name of the work.
- Use the Name field for the movement number and the movement name.
- Accept that the Album Artist, Composer and Grouping fields won't be helpful.
Here's an example. At this point we've just ripped a CD and retrieved
the song titles in whatever insane random format comes over from CDDB.
Step 1: Select all the tracks on the album and edit the artist field
to show both the composer and the performer, composer first, last
name only (or last-name-comma-initials). Use a format like this:
Dvorak / Prague String Quartet
This is the main field that the songs will be sorted by, so you want
it to match your record collection as closely as practical. I
really want my Dvorak string quartets under D and my Handel Concerti
Grossi under H.
(It's possible to do use a prettier version of the composer name,
first-name-first and last-name-last, and use the Sort Artist feature
to sort it correctly, but that's painful as the Sort Artist feature
is not documented and you need to do a resort every time you add new
music. And in practice it ends up pushing the performer off the end
of the limited iPod/iPhone display, so it's just not worth the
I've been using the Composer field for a prettier version of the
composer name and the Album Artist field for a prettier version of
the performer name, just for documentation purposes, as these fields
don't show up on an iPod/iPhone.
Step 2: For each composition on the album, select all the movements
and adjust the Album field to reflect the name of the work. This
effectively splits an album up into several albums, one per
String Quartets: No. 3 in D Major
Physical albums, as such, are less important to classical music
listeners; classical albums are generally just a container for a
number of works and don't have notable titles. So instead we use
the Album field for the name of the individual work, optionally
prefixed with an abbreviated album name so that works from the same
album will group together. You'll want to check to be sure it's
short enough to display well on the iPod/iPhone.
Step 3: And finally, use the individual song name for the number and
the name of the movement, like this:
And here's how it looks on an iPhone:
And here's another example:
I'll publish this here, and maybe collect some improvements over time.
So far this is working well for me.
Yes, there is a significant amount of manual labor involved in editing
the iTunes tags for classical music. That's a bad sign. At least
it's mostly cut-and-paste and you can listen to the music while you're
Maybe this will suggest a better tagging schema to Apple. And maybe
the folks behind the CDDB database, will be able to address classical
music, either by adopting this approach or coming up with something
Or maybe there's an entrepreneurial business opportunity for a classical CDDB.