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Managing iTunes metadata for classical music

iTunes10 iconWarning: This post is extremely nerdy and detailed. If you don’t really care about classical music, iTunes—or metadata, for that matter—you may lose interest rather quickly. Feel free to look around and see if something less navel-gazing catches your eye.

Getting your metadata right in iTunes can be challenging at the best of times. Most people simply ‘live with’ whatever metadata came with the item they’re importing: if it’s from the iTunes store it’s usually pretty good, and if you’re importing your own CDs, iTunes often seems to just ‘know’ what it’s importing. If you’ve downloaded music from another source, you’re pretty much at the mercy of whoever ripped the music in the first place, subject to their laziness or weird personal idiosyncrasies.

If you’re dealing mostly with popular music and have a library that only runs to 100s of albums, you may not know or care that you have a problem with inconsistent metadata. Apple’s newer metadata ‘matching’ technologies—basically, the magic that makes iTunes Match [1] work—tend to be relatively accurate for popular music.

But if you’re managing classical music digitally, all bets are off—especially if you’re dealing with someone else’s metadata. I can still remember a time when I simply dismissed the idea of ripping my classical CDs into iTunes because I just couldn’t see how it could help me re-create a rich enough labeling environment that would do the material justice. At first glance, classical music seems to simply have too many dimensions to capture in MP3 metadata (metadata is an umbrella term for all the descriptive fields included for each music file).

And yet, the MP3 metadata specification [2] actually has enough fields to support classical music—and iTunes implements enough of them to make it a viable music manager for classical music. (The point about ‘what iTunes implements’ is an aside, but isn’t unimportant: most media managers and media players actually only implement a subset of the full MP3 metadata specification, so when it comes to talking about practical music metadata management for classical music, it makes sense to be specific about which software you’re talking about.)

Here is my standard usage of the tags for classical MP3s. I’m deliberately leaving out the “BPM” field as it really has no value for classical music, and I’m ignoring the “Part of a gapless album” tag, which is no longer included in the new iTunes version 11 and was never really necessary anyway if the music was ripped/ingested correctly in the first place (CDs are by default gapless, as are properly encoded MP3s).

Tag Usage
Name This is the field used for “track name.” My preferred usage for this is to use the format [Composer] – [Work] – [Movement]. An example is Handel Concerto grosso Op. 6 No. 1 in G major HWV 319 – A tempo giusto.

For composer names, I use the shortest recognizable form here: Handel instead of George Frideric Handel. In cases where there are multiple composers by the same last name, I have adopted the convention CPE Bach Concerto in G major Wq 169 – Allegro di molto. In cases where the composer is essentially unknown, I use Henri de Bailly: “Yo soy la locura”.

For track names where no composer is available (e.g. folk songs or anonymous songs), I simply use the title of the piece. If someone well-known has arranged the folk song, I use (Arr. Andrea Marcon).

I use quotes for ‘song titles’ (as in vocal material) and no quotes for movement titles.

A practical suggestion when adding Name titles is to type up the [Composer] and [Work] components once, and then copy them to each new track that’s part of the same work before adding the [Movement] piece. Personally, I don’t feel that I need to number the movements specifically as part of the Name field, but I see it done sometimes so I thought I’d mention it. My feeling is that iTunes does a good enough job of keeping things in sequence.

Finally, I think I should briefly touch on why I include the composer and work in each Name tag: it simply makes browsing for music in iTunes easier. While I also capture the composer in the Composer field (see below), it’s a lot easier to find what you’re looking for when it’s in the Name tag. Obviously, simply having the movement titles as track names would be meaningless: “Allegro” by itself means basically nothing.

Artist This is where the performer goes—not the composer! (I mention this specifically because I see this particular mis-use of this field all the time.)

If there’s only a single performer (e.g. a piano recital), I just use Stephen Hough.

If the performers are an ensemble with a conductor, I use Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado.

If there are two performers (e.g. violin sonatas), I use Gary Cooper, Rachel Podger. The most reasonable way is to list them in the order they’re listed on the CD cover. We sometimes make implicit assumptions about which instrument is more important than the other, but Mozart’s violin sonatas are a good case in point where this is in fact not so clear.

In cases where the main soloist is also the conductor, I list them before the ensemble: Leonidas Kavakos, Camerata Salzburg.

Otherwise, I put the soloist at the beginning, the ensemble in the middle and the conductor last: Maurice Steger, The English Concert, Laurence Cummings.

In situations where there are simply too many performers/soloists listed, I cut them off after about three or so (this applies mostly to opera recordings).

For chamber ensembles, I find that up to 4 or five performers listed in order still works fine: Julia Fischer, Daniel Müller-Schott, Jonathan Gilad. Beyond that, it gets a bit tricky—I have no specific recommendation. Trust your instincts.

Finally, in some cases there is no ensemble listed on either the front or back cover of the CD, and the soloist is clearly also the conductor. He or she has assembled a hand-selected group whose names are listed inside the booklet, but there are too many of them to reasonably list in the Artist field. Then, I just list the main soloist by name.

Album Artist I use this field very sparingly. Here’s how it’s meant to be used: If you have a compilation (“various artists”) album and each track is actually performed by a different artist, it’s possible to set an “Album Artist” tag for the whole album and thereby ensure that it shows up under the correct artist in iTunes. In popular music, a good example may be an album of duets (e.g. Barbra Streisand’s Duets) where every track is sung with a different partner: the “Album Artist” is clearly always the same, but the Artist field changes from track to track.

This is actually a very powerful field to use for classical music because the proportion of albums using this format is higher in classical music. For example, there are many CDs with a mixed cast of artists: the first work may be a flute concerto, the second an oboe concerto, and so on. The orchestra and conductor may remain the same but the soloists change every three tracks or so. In this particular case, I might consider entering the orchestra and conductor’s name in the “Album Artist” field. More often than not, though, I just leave “Album Artist” blank. iTunes automatically substitutes (or shows, rather—nothing is in fact entered into the field if you leave it blank) “Various Artists.”

Year In this field, I enter the year the recording was originally issued (not the year it was recorded, nor the year it was reissued—the finer points are my own preference; you can obviously vary this according to yours).
Track Number iTunes automatically provides track numbers when you’re importing a CD.

Make sure it also fills the “of X tracks” field with the correct total number of tracks. I don’t technically know that it makes a difference to iTunes database performance, but I’ve come to believe that it does. I also think that should tracks ever get lost—for whatever reason—having this field correctly filled allows you to more easily re-assemble an album because you know how many tracks it should have.

Album For this tag, my convention is [Composer] — [Work or Album Title] — [(Possibly conductor/main performer)].

The simplest example is Handel 12 Concerti grossi.

If you—like me—have multiple recordings of certain key repertoire, I suggest to use the conductor’s or main soloist’s name in parentheses at the end of the Album tag to differentiate them: Beethoven 9 Symphonies (Gardiner).

For albums that have only a ‘marketing’ title and contain a variety of composer’s works, I just use the CD title.

For albums that contain multiple composers’ works but have no specific ‘marketing’ title, I use Beethoven/Schumann Piano Trios.

Disc Number This is pretty simple to understand, but paying attention to this consistently when ingesting music has great rewards in the long term. In principle, multi-CD albums belong together in iTunes and should not be listed as separate albums. It makes for easier file management and a better listening experience to add them as a single album and ensure that the disc number and the “of X discs” fields are correctly set.
Grouping I use the Grouping tag only rarely. It’s meant to be used to indicate some additional meta-grouping information about the works that operates a level above the notion of the work. An example might be to label multiple tracks with either 3-Part Fantazias or 4-Part Fantazias in Purcell’s Fantazias. When adding operas, this is a great place to indicate which Act the piece belongs to without cluttering your Name field with even more repeating information.
Composer I use a straight-up Johann Sebastian Bach format here. No dates of birth or death, and I certainly don’t follow the “Bach, Johann Sebastian” format which makes no sense to me at all (it’s not like iTunes has a search function that in any way benefits from having last name first).

I think the key to success here is consistency and proper spelling (something that could be said about all music metadata!).

Genre I set this to Classical and leave it at that. This is because I have 17 genres in total in my iTunes library. For people who are only managing classical music, some differentiation here might be a good idea. I have no suggestions about whether you should differentiate by period (e.g. Renaissance, Baroque) or type of music (e.g. chamber, orchestral).
Part of a compilation For any albums where you are listing different performers in the Artist field, you should set this to “on.” This is best done when bulk-editing a whole album’s metadata, in the Options tab.

I add album art to every album in my iTunes. What I learned a few years ago is that following good housekeeping principles every time I add something to the library pays great dividends later as I never have to go back and fix things later. I google the album title, pick the largest, highest-quality JPG or PNG image I can find and add it to the entire album. Visual identification is very important, especially for those of us managing large iTunes databases, so I don’t have any material in my iTunes library that doesn’t have artwork.

Finally, an increasing number of paid downloads now come with a digital booklet, usually in Adobe PDF format. These booklets can actually be stored together with the MP3 files and displayed as part of the album in iTunes. Here are the steps:

  1. Add the item to iTunes as a book. For example, put it into the “Add to iTunes” folder, or use File/Add File to Library. The item will show up under the Books category.
  2. Next, right-click on the item, choose Get Info and add some metadata. Make sure at least Album, Genre and Artist are consistent with the rest of the material from same the album.
  3. In the Options tab, change the Media Kind field to ‘Music’. This will convince iTunes to treat the file as music (don’t worry, it won’t somehow try and play it), and moves it into the same folder where the MP3s are stored.

Your end result should look something like this:

Music metadata - digital booket in PDF format [3]

Album listing in iTunes 10.7 showing a PDF digital booklet listed together with the album.

I would be interested to hear about your own experiences with using iTunes to manage classical music in the comments section below. What works for you that isn’t mentioned in this post?