Photo by Carlos Lorenzo on Flickr
iTunes software is designed to manage collections of popular music. Your music is assumed to be by a particular artist with the song being part of an album . It certainly makes sense to organise pop and rock music this way. For example, Abbey Road is an album by The Beatles, released in 1969 with the songs Come Together, Something, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, and so on.
Unfortunately this system falls down when trying to tag classical music. A lot of classical music has muliple parts such as a symphony with four movements. The same piece of music can be recorded by more than one performer or orchestra. Classical music can be packaged in all sorts of ways, for example, ABC Classic FM surveyed listeners with the question “What is the one piece of piano music you can’t live without? The top 100 pieces were compiled onto an 8 CD box set.
It was this boxed set that highlighted the problems with iTunes tags. I was listening to one of the tracks and I wanted to know the name of the piece. My iPod showed the name of the work “Impromptu” and the performer’s name. Many classical pieces have generic names based on their style or form, but I wanted to know the composer.
In this article I am going to describe the system I have just discovered for tagging classical music.
Making iTunes manage your classical music
This system satisfies my requirements for useful music tagging. When using my 5th generation iPod Nano I would like to be able to:
- Know the name of the music and composer when listening to the music, for example: Schubert Impromptu No 2 in A flat
- Find a particular work by a composer, for example, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony
- Find music in a particular genre, for example, Piano Concertos or String Quartet.
- Browse music by composer
- Find music by a particular performer.
I decided to search the internet on this subject as I was sure other people have already solved the problem. My system is an implementation based on three articles listed at the end of this article.
I will use the terms song, track, or piece interchangably in this article. These are the smallest units of audio stored in iTunes and capabable of being tagged.
When the iPod is playing a song it displays the Artist, Name (of the track) and the Album. What I want to see is Composer instead of Artist, and Name Of Work instead of Album.
Classical music requires a different approach to tagging than popular music. Artist is now used for the name of the composer, and Album name is for the entire work. The individual track name is now the name of the piece or the movement of a larger work. For example, Beethoven’s 5th symphony has four movements – Allegro con brio, Andante con moto, Scherzo – Allegro, and Allegro.
The second article I researched (see end of this blog for links) summarises this advice:
For classical music you should put the composer in the ARTIST field and the actual artist(s), performing the work, in the COMPOSER field. Read it again: this is the most important tip in this article!
Where do tags come from?
When you import a CD into iTunes or rip it with a program like WinAmp, the tags are fetched from a database on the internet (usually Gracenote). This database is populated by users manually entering details of their CDs. Therefore information about a CD is dependent on the person who entered details. As you would expect there is no consistency across CDs so you will need to tidy up the tags in your iTunes library.
The tags maintained in iTunes can be seen when you choose select a track, right click then choose Get Info. Alternatively use the shortcut which is Ctl-I on Windows (please tell me the Mac equivalent if different).
- Track number N of N
- Disc Number N of M
- BPM (Beats per minute)
- Part of a compilation (toggle)
The system I derived from the first article (see the end of the article for the link) is to use the fields as follows.
The iPod display is quite narrow so abbreviate names as much as possible for easier reading. This requires using consistent abbreviations such as Sym (Symphony), Conc (Concerto), SQ (String Quartet). Keep the most significant information a the beginning of fields.
I maintain a document with my abbreviations and some of these are shown at the end of the article. Maintain your own lists to use as your reference during tagging.
For non-classical music enter the name of the song or tune, for example, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
For a one movement work, enter the name of the work in the original language with English translation (if relevant) in parentheses.
For a work of multiple movements such as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, use the part number and a description. For example 1. Allegro con brio. Add an abbreviation of the work name at the beginning of multi-part works to help identify the work to which it belongs. The name would now be Sym 5 – 1 Allegro con brio.
You may also want to add an abbreviation of the composer name to the end of the field. This is useful when browing playlists as you can only view the track name in a playlist. For example, Sym 5 – 1 Allegro con brio [Beet].
When tagging operas enter the Act and Scene Number followed by a brief desription (for example Overture) or the beginning of the song. For example Act 3 Sc 2 – Nessun Dorma.
When playing this music the iPod will show Beethoven, Ludwig as the artist and the album name will have the full work name with indications of the performer.
Use this field to store the composer name. Use the format of surname, followed by first name. You can add the birth year and death year for more information. For example, Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1823). Pay particular attention to names with diacritical characters such as Béla Bartók, Saint-Saëns and Antonín Dvořák. Copy the correctly marked text from a web site like Wikipedia then paste it into the Get Info dialog box. This will ensure that the name is displayed characters and you won’t have some works by Béla Bartók and others by Bela Bartok (can you see the difference?).
When you browse your music, the Music > Artist menu will show composer names as well as all your popular artists. Choose a composer name to browse a list of their works.
Use this field to store the year when the music was first performed or published. If you want to store the year of the recording, enter it at the end of the Album tag after the work name, for example Beethoven Sym #1 C (1963 von Karajan, Berlin).
Track number N of N
The iPod displays amd plays tracks in track number sequence so use these fields for works with multiple parts. Renumber the parts of a multi-part work, starting at one.
Use this field to uniquely identify a work. Enter the name of the work and an abbreviation of the composer name at the beginning of the field. It is important that the abbreviation makes sense to you. The full composer name is stored in the Artist field. For example, Beet Sym No. 1 in C Maj Op 21.
Classical music has additional information including the key and major or minor, a work (Opus) number and sometimes a nickname. For example, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2 has a nickname of the Moonlight Sonata. This long description includes the key of C sharp minor, and the sonata is the second work in a collection labelled Opus 27. Now you can see the need for abbreviations as well as consistencies.
You will sometimes need to use spaces before numbers for sorting purposes. For example Op. 1, Op. 3 and Op.10 will sort correctly. Note the spaces before 1 and 3 otherwise they will sort into the sequence of 1, 10 then 3.
Key signatures can be abbreviated using capital letters for major and small letters for minor using # for sharp and b for flat. For example, Sonata in c means C minor and Sonata in F# means F sharp major
You can add an abbreviation of the performer and conductor to the end of the field. For example [Rattle, BPO] which means the work was layed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Adding this information will help with searching and display. Music > Albums lists all the albums in your iPod but you will be able to see the work name and a hint about the composer name and performer.
You will need to enter the name of a one movement work in both the album and track name, for consistency in sorting.
Disc Number N of M
Use this field for numbering the disks in long works such as operas.
This field is not used on the iPod but it could be used to identify the physical CD and record label. For example, “ABC Classics Piano Top 100”.
Use this field to store the performer name. List the soloist first then the orchestra and conductor. For example Kyung-Wha Chung (LSO, Tennstedt) would mean Klaus Tennstedt is conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with Kyung-Wha Chung being the soloist (one of my favourite violinists).
The Music > Composers iPod menu will now show the list of performers. Choose a performer to see a list of works played by this performer.
Before you begin tagging your music, I suggest you select all music in your collection and blank out the composer name.
Use this field to store any further information about the music or the original CD. The comments field is not available on the iPod but accessible on iTunes. For example, ABC Classics Top 100 Piano Music.
Use this field for storing your own custom tags to be used in smart playlists. I have a book titled The Classical Top 40, so if I added a tag to the comments field on this work like #classicalTop40 then I could create a smart playlist with the criteria of Comments contains #classicalTop40.
I have written about Genre in a another blog article. I tend to use only broad categories for this field such as Piano, Piano Concerto, Symphony, etc but this list may be further refined as I import my CD collection into iTunes.
Part of a compilation (toggle)
The second article I referenced suggested using this checkbox on all the tracks of an album if it contains music by two or more composers. . This will show your album with one cover in iTunes’ cover flow or album view, instead of one cover for every composer. I am not convinced that this field is required in my system.
Artwork (accessible when multiple tracks selected)
The cover art is the image used when the iPod is display a track. All tracks in an album would typically share the same art work. Cover art is also used in the cover flow browsing method on the iPod and in iTunes. The art work will usually help you remember where the music came from. For example, all 8 CDs of the top 100 Piano music would have the same cover art.
Rating (accessible when multiple tracks selected)
This field is used to rank how much you “like” a work. This is useful for creating smart playlists, for example my favourite Beethoven piano sonata movements. I don’t normally use this field but I will explore it further and write a blog article.
Now that your music is well organised you can use the power of playlists to organise your music for specific purposes. Read my earlier article about smart playlists to create music for all occasions.
What is next?
Now that I have described my system, I am going to empty my iTunes library of classical music and start again with this new system. I will choose a variety of CD contents to verify and fine tune my tagging system. This project will require setting up a new directory structure on my computer (and external backup). This will be the subject of a later blog article.