Charles Petzold

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.