The Problems with Classical Music

Across the board, music metadata is flawed. Both download services such as Apple’s iTunes and Amazon Music, and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, are very limited in what information is shown about any given track. For the most part, these services are designed to organize music simply by song title, album, and artist. While this is usually satisfactory for genres like pop, hip-hop/rap, or country, there are certain genres that suffer with such a limited organizational structure. The big example of this is photo-1459247512518-2d9ea60e7489Classical music. Classical music is a genre that spans centuries, “many thousands of composers and performers, very similar titles…multiple movements within most compositions, and innumerable recordings.” Because of the complexity and multiple levels of participation in Classical music, the current music services inevitably leave out lots of important information that is necessary to the Classical fan’s music experience.

Song Length

One of the main problems Classical music comes up against is song length. Physical and digital services are made to support the average, three-minute pop song, not hour long, story-telling songs. Both on CDs and streaming services, individual Classical songs get broken down into multiple tracks based on time. On physical formats, this does not pose too huge a problem, as listeners can easily listen to the composition in order and are aware of where each track comes from. Music streaming is where this really becomes a problem. As Kirk McElhearn explains in his article about this phenomenon, if an album is streamed as a single track, the record label and subsequent participants will receive very little money for their streams. As of now, streaming services pay by track, not by duration. It is significantly more profitable for record labels to split up the tracks into more manageable segments, and therefore increase their amount of streams. Ideally, streaming services would change their pay structures in a way that would better support classical music. However, as an NPR article points out, “Classical music, as a genre, hovers at about three percent of total market share in the U.S. What’s good enough for more than 90 percent of these services’ consumer base is, simply, good enough.” It is very unlikely that any substantial changes will be made when there is not a huge demand for improvements.

photo-1453906971074-ce568cccbc63While splitting up long tracks does not seem hugely problematic, it becomes extremely difficult for Classical music fans to find specific songs. When “streaming services treat individual pieces of classical music as if they were standalone songs, pieces are often divorced from their larger works, then shuffled and streamed to the listener in no particular order.” The main draw of a Classical work is the story that is told throughout the duration of the song. When it is broken apart, a work loses its continuity and the listener misses out on any meaning that was meant to come from it.

A Concrete Example

For non-Classical music fans, this is fairly difficult to understand. Splitting up an instrumental song and shuffling it does not seem to take away too much from the listening experience. However, as Classical fans will attest to, it ruins the listening experience both with downloading, and streaming. Anastasia Tsioulcas breaks this down flawlessly with some concrete examples in her article on the topic, found here: She writes:

“Say I want to hear Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Well, Bernstein recorded this symphony three different times – with the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and also at a historic performance in 1989 in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with members of four different orchestras (The London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Kirov Orchestra from then-Leningrad and the Orchestre de Paris). But let’s…assume we’re looking for Bernstein’s recording of the Beethoven Ninth with the New York Philharmonic. There were also four vocal soloists on the recording – soprano Martina Arroyo, mezzo-soprano Regina Sarfaty, tenor Nicholas di Virgilio and bass Norman Scott. The performance also includes the Juilliard Choros, directed by Abraham Kaplan.”

What this one example shows us is how many participants there can be in any given piece, and why it might be difficult to find what you are looking for. If one was searching for this on iTunes for example, what artist would they search for? The options are endless from Leonard Bernstein, to Beethoven, to the conductor, on and on. Tsiolcas also gives us a concrete example of how this issue plays out on streaming services. She writes:

“I decide to try out Spotify’s classical radio station…The first thing I hear is the middle movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23, the “Appassionata,” a work written for solo piano. But there’s no way for me to see that this is just one movement, not the whole piece. There’s also no mention of who the pianist is…there are probably over 100 (or more) currently-in-print recordings of this piece made by different pianists.”

The lack of information available is the result of using a platform that simply cannot pexels-photo-largeshowcase all of the necessary information. As soon as Beethoven is entered as the artist on Spotify, all of the other participant information is effectively wiped out. Gone are the performers, conductors, instrumentalists, and librettists. Experienced Classical music fans can potentially navigate around this and figure out what is what based on their knowledge. However, new listeners have no way of knowing that a track is just one movement of a whole, or who is performing, thus preventing them from the full experience. It is clear that changes need to be made.


While there is yet to be a hugely successful solution, there have been strides taken to make listening to Classical music more accessible. Several companies have launched subscription streaming services that focus solely on the Classical genre. For example, Arkiv Music launched Classical Archives and Naxos Music launched Classic Online HD LL. These are both platforms that are specific to Classical music. While these are positive outlets, they face their own issues in that not many users are willing to pay for ANOTHER music subscription on top of what they already use, solely for Classical music. Ideally, the big platforms like Spotify, Pandora, and Amazon Music would develop systems that work better. As of December 2015, the new iTunes’ update “allows you to see works, composers, and performers while browsing Classical music in the Apple Music catalog.”  Improvements in metadata like this one are necessary not only for the enjoyment of listeners, but to ensure that artists and record labels are paid their deserved royalties. Hopefully, as time goes on, other services will follow in the footsteps of Apple and the overall system will improve for Classical music.

Evan Stein

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