Getting the Most out of Classical Music with iTunes and the iPod

[Update, September 2006. Apple introduced gapless playback to iTunes 7 and to the latest iPods, making the questions of joining tracks, as explained below, moot in many cases. See this article for an explanation of gapless playback.

However, if you have an older iPod (older than the iPod video or nano), you won't benefit from this feature. In addition, you may still want to join tracks to be able to play music at random, playing entire works, rather than disparate movements. So much of this article remains valid today.]

While Apple is aggressively marketing its iPod to the younger generation, through its ads and commercials featuring black silhouettes dancing to hip-hop and rock music, the iPod is also a valuable device for listening to classical music. However, to get the most out of this type of music, you need to reconsider the way you rip your CDs.

I’ve got eclectic musical tastes. My iPod contains music by the Grateful Dead, The Durutti Column, The Clash, Brian Eno, moe. and Widespread Panic, as well as Bach, Haydn, Handel and Schubert. I’ve long explored all types of music, and the capacity of my iPod lets me carry a diverse selection of tunes with me.


For rock and pop music, the iPod (and iTunes; all my explanations here apply to both) is easy to use: insert a CD in your computer, rip the music, then create a playlist (or just listen to your songs in random order). But for classical music, and to a lesser extent jazz, you need a different approach. There are constraints in most classical music that keep you from ripping your CDs in the same way.In operas, for example, there are often no pauses between recitatives and arias, or between orchestral movements and arias. If you rip your music as individual tracks, you’ll get that pause. You can eliminate it in iTunes, if you go to the Effects preferences and set Crossfade Playback to 0 seconds. But the iPod can’t play tracks without an audible pause. Ideally, when ripping operas, you should convert each disc into a single track. To do this, insert a CD into your computer, then select all the tracks on that CD and select Advanced > Join CD Tracks. This gives you a single track of the entire disc, and you won’t have any inopportune pauses.

However, this means that you won’t be able to see the names of individual tracks in your operas. It’s a trade-off, but if you listen to music on the go, you probably won’t be bothered. (You can, however, always check the elapsed time of the track to know where you are.) There is another advantage to this approach: your operas will only be 3 or 4 tracks, instead of hundreds, making it easier to browse music and organize your tunes.

But when you rip classical music you’re confronted with another problem: that of correctly identifying the composer, artist and album. iTunes uses the Gracenote CDDB (CD database) which records track and album information for hundreds of thousands of CDs. A lot of classical discs are included in this database, but I’ve found many that are either missing or incorrect. In addition, when you rip music with iTunes, it organizes your music by artist; in the case of classical music, this is usually the performer. I’ve seen some operas where a different artist is listed for each disc: this is usually just a variant of the actual orchestra and conductor, but it makes organizing the resulting music on your hard disk a bit of a hassle.

The solution to this is to change the information before ripping your disks. Again, select all the tracks, press Command+I (or Ctrl+I on a PC), and fill in the fields. You should fill in the Composer field, since this is generally blank. Set whatever name you want for the album (again, the CDDB information is often incorrect here), then do the same for the artist. You’ll find it easier to browse for music when the information you’ll want to look for is already attached to your music.

Smart Playlists and Classical Music

Another way the iPod and iTunes make classical listening more interesting is by setting up smart playlists that play back music in random order. At first glance, this may seem to be a heresy – after all, classical music is not meant to be listened to with the shuffle button pressed on your CD player. But there is a way of leveraging this function to enhance your listening.

Let me give you a concrete example; two, in fact. I have lots of box sets of classical music, some of which contain dozens of discs. There are two in particular that I ripped with iTunes to listen to on my iPod: the first is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s memorable recordings of Schubert lieder; the second is a set of Haydn symphonies by Adam Fischer and his Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra. The Schubert set is 21 CDs (though I only ripped 18 of them, since the other three contain song cycles meant to be listened to in order), and the Haydn set is 33 CDs. (For information, the Schubert takes up about 1.5 GB and the Haydn 2.4 GB, ripped at 160 bps AAC.)

For the Schubert, setting up a smart playlist was simple: I have it set to play 50 random songs that I haven’t listened to in the last three months, guaranteeing that whenever I want to listen to some of these lieder I’ll get a playlist of two hours or more of songs I haven’t heard recently. I don’t listen to this music every day, and it takes a few months to get through the more than 400 songs, or over 21 hours of music. With this smart playlist, way I don’t always hear the same songs, which I might if I were to listen to the CDs themselves, and I hear them in random order, increasing the variety of the music.

For the Haydn symphonies, it took a bit more work. I joined the tracks of each individual symphony (selecting the tracks and selecting Join CD Tracks for each symphony before ripping the CDs), and my smart playlist is set to play 4 symphonies among the least recently played. I won’t hear the same symphony for a while, unless I listen to this playlist over and over for more than 36 hours. As with operas, you won’t be able to select individual movements, but if the CDDB information is correct, you’ll see the names of the movements in the joined track name.

This flexibility, using smart playlists, makes it much easier to listen to large sets of classical music, and allows me to discover a lot more music than I normally would if I were to listen to each CD one after another. It also offers more interesting juxtapositions than the numerical order of the Hadyn symphonies, or the chronological order of the Schubert lieder.

For some types of music it can be a bit more complicated to set up playlists correctly, since there may be tracks that are meant to be listened to in pairs. I have a set of keyboard music of William Byrd, performed by Davitt Moroney, and some of the pieces are paired. This requires that you check the liner notes before ripping, and join any such pairs together to listen to the music the way it was intended.

So, with the correct approach, the iPod is a great device for listening to classical music, even if you don’t use it on the go. Just rip all the CDs you want, create playlists, and plug it into your stereo at home. (Or, of course, if your computer is close to your stereo, you can use iTunes to do the same thing.) You’ll be able to listen to all your operas, or your biggest box sets, with greater flexibility by mastering smart playlists.

For more on the subject, read these two articles I wrote for Playlist Magazine: Classical Music on the iPod and iTunes and Tagging Classical Music.


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21 replies
  1. Anonymous says:

    thanks for that, Kirk.

    I didn’t know about that function in iTunes. but I have encountered write
    failures when trying to burn CDs that included tracks that run into one
    another. peut-être pour ça…

    Reply
  2. Anonymous says:

    You’ll also want to make sure you’re ripping in a high-quality format. I set my iTunes to rip in MP3 format, variable bit rate, 128 kb/s minimum bit rate.

    Reply
    • Kirk says:

      That’s not very high-quality, to be honest. If you want to use VBR MP3, I’d
      suggest a minimum of 192 kbps. I use AAC, at 160 kbps.

      Don’t forget you can also use Apple lossless, which takes up more space, but
      is exactly the same quality as the original CD.

      Reply
  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the advice, but i have already ripped about 20,000 tracks from my
    music collection and can’t work with them as i had planned from my 120 Gig
    external "all my music in one place" drive. iTunes does not let me go back to
    join tracks without reburning or going back to the original CD (all of which I
    have given to my children, saving an astonishing amount of space and clutter
    and letting me indulge most musical whims without having to search through
    CDs that included many samplers, varied programs and multiple composers
    and artists on one disk).

    My approach has created several new problems.

    One is how to back myself up without creating all the disks I wanted to get rid
    of. Even burning MP3s at 160 takes up a lot of space. It has, however,
    inspired many interesting opportunities to create custom combinations to
    introduce my grandchildren to aspects of music and its history that no
    existing disk does. For example, I have edited and narrated a two-disk MP3 (I
    have some PC-using grandchildren) set on the evolution of the Paganini
    Caprices from Locatelli to Andrew Lloyd Webber with excursions into various
    instruments and genres and comparisons with other efforts to explore the
    possibilities of instruments, like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and the ways
    of constructing Variations, like Brahms’ and Rachmaninnoff’s. Finding a good
    application in OS X for conveniently inserting my spoken comments between
    or into tracks has also been unsatisfying. I have also Made them copies of
    some of my favorite idiosyncratic collections, like 50 different
    interpretations of "All the things you are" or "Body and Soul" from the original
    performances through vastly different renditions on varied instruments,
    which brings out both aspects of the music and talents of the interpreters
    that are quite dramatic. Well, to each his own.

    How to compact my collection as efficiently as possible is
    complicated by my desire to maintain the integrity of an original album when
    the same track is repeated on multiple recordings. I have found no easy way
    to use the same file to represent multiple iTunes tracks which are really the
    same music reorganized on different compilations. I have many comipilations
    of Opera excerpts ( I find it difficult to enjoy recitatives or plot lines when
    listening piecemeal during activities, and, as a singer, I often enjoy comparing
    multiple performances of an aria by different artists more than a single opera
    in toto. Some performances by the young Pavarotti, however, are far different
    than his recent ones, and identical performances are collected in differently
    named CD packages. Keeping performances both easily distinguishable and
    readily accessible without destroying a record producer’s posssible artistry in
    organizing a disk is difficult if not impossible in iTunes without keeping many
    duplicates of identical track files.

    I have been frustrated in seeking efficient ways of keeping liner notes and
    information related to a piece or performance, including some scores or
    libretti, I have not found any convenient way of quickly noting in iTunes that I
    have the sheet music for a track in one of my many collections of "Baritone
    Arias" or "Italian Art Songs" let alone where exactly to find it. Ideally I’d like to
    scan all that paper onto disk and call it up from iTunes with a click.

    Finally, for the time being, I would love to figure out how to send pieces of
    miedium length to my relatives and friends who lack DSL more efficiently. I
    often hear a phrase or piece that i think someone will find interesting (two of
    my soons, e.g., are amateur composer-arrangers, and I often find myslef
    hearing the way someone else has worked out a musical challenge that they
    would find instructive). Trimming out, say, several five minute excerpts of
    pieces and attaching them to e-mail is very time consuming on both sides
    (and reminds me how far away they all live). Any suggestions?

    Bob G New York

    Reply
    • edwardo says:

      Hi, I was greatly intrigued by your posting describing the custom CD’s you have made for your granchildren. Especially the instrument evolutions and variations. Do you sell these? Would you consider burning one? I am a music writer/teacher who has been unsuccessful in getting my son as jonzed about classical as I had hoped. This seems like an excellent approach.

      -edwardo

      Reply
  4. Rick Beyda says:

    Bob G has probably forgotten more about Classical music than I’ll ever
    know, but one tool he should be reminded about is AppleScript.

    iTunes is fully scriptable, Bob, but better than hacking around yourself are
    the downloadable scripts available from Doug’s AppleScripts at

    http://www.malcolmadams.com/itunes/index.php

    iTunes has a menu bar option for AppleScripts called ScriptMenu, which
    can be installed as easily as creating a folder called Scripts in your users/
    username / library/ itunes folder.

    Download and place whatever scripts you choose in this folder. The one in
    particular I thought you’d find useful is "Copy as MP3 from Start to Stop".
    This will allow you to edit out and save a portion of the selected file. Making
    an MP3 from an MP3 will cause fidelity to suffer a bit, but that isn’t an issue
    in this case.

    There are hundreds of scripts available – free- on the net, but Doug’s site is
    the most helpful, comprehensive and educational one I’ve come across.

    BTW, OS 9 users – iTunes 2.0.4 is also scriptable, and many of these
    scripts will work in Classic as well.

    Reply
  5. Anonymous says:

    thanks Kirk, that was very helpful. I am new to iPod and having an incredibly hard time keeping certain pieces in order. When it’s Lieder I don’t mind my music list mixing the order up. But when it’s the Johannes Passion it turns out that Jesus ends on the cross before the choir gets to point him out to Pilate. And that’s after I name and rename the different tracks in a way that makes (orderly) sense to me. What to do? Thanks, Tamar

    Reply
    • STaylor says:

      I need help, and don’t know where to turn. It appears that you may have the experience & expertise to help me:

      In addition to a modest number of CD’s, purchased over 15 years, I have a substantial, but OLD classical collection, of great music but medicore analog sound quality, on LP’s and tapes. I don’t like all of it, but I know which works and which performances I DO like. Where is the best place to find (just a limited number – don’t want all the CD’s) these ONLINE (iTunes store or similar), without the limitations of the Gracenote database, and then simply purchase downloadable digital classical music, one work at a time?

      I would use good formats (Apple Lossless or similar), as I have an excellent music system from MERIDIAN (www.meridian-audio.com).

      Indeed, when you describe the virtues of Apple Lossless, I’m surprised that you don’t also mention MLP (Meridian Lossless) … it is the new standard for DVD-A and can do streaming; doesn’t need the whole file (e.g. Apple Lossless), etc., among other advantages. Apple should have used it, but maybe they didn’t want to deal with international standards (read: Japan, Inc. + a British audio company + Dolby, who has now bought the rights to MLP from Merdian), who knows?

      I’d be grateful for any advice regarding where I should go to find great classical works in downloadable form. Here’s an example that GRACENOTE can’t find: "Mozart Symphony #12 in G, Prague Symphony Orchestra".

      Many thanks!

      /Steve Taylor; set505@comcast.net

      Reply
  6. Anonymous says:

    Bob G:

    This may be too late, but regarding your question about trimming MP3s to send to your sons, you might check out MP3 Trimmer. Its sole purpose in life is to do exactly what you’re looking for I think. Basically, you open up the MP3 you’d like to edit in the MP3 Trimmer application and splice out the section you want to keep. Then the program saves the “new” MP3 as a separate file on your desktop (or wherever). The nice thing about MP3 Trimmer is that it doesn’t first expand your original MP3 in order to edit it, and then recompress the edited portion (and thus lowered the sound quality). Instead, it simply edits the MP3 file directly. It costs all of $9 and you can find it here: http://www.versiontracker.com/dyn/moreinfo/macosx/20938

    Best,
    Glenn

    Reply
  7. bob says:

    Thanks for a lot of very useful general info.- I too had been frustrated by the
    iPod organisation. This comment refers to some of the comments as well as
    to your 3 articles.

    I agree that it is important to get the compression right, and for my ears AAC
    at 192 k is about as good as the iPod can handle.

    However this is nowhere near what the original CD can do. The problem is
    mainly that listening on an iPod is limited by the iPod DAC/preamplifier. If I
    play the Philips Zoltan Koczis Bartok compilation from the iPod through my
    reasonable Hi-Fi, it’s not at all bad reproduction. However, put the disc in my
    Linn Genki, and there is a piano there. Similarly for the Quatuor Mozaiques
    playing Mozart- the presence just doesn’t come through the iPod, whether
    using loudspeakers or a pair of Sennheiser 580s.

    The iPod is great on holiday or on the move, but no way would I consider
    using it for serious listening, and anybody thinking of using one to feed into
    a good audio system should check out what this sounds like before going
    down the path of putting large collections on.


    Bob L

    Reply
  8. apisanty says:

    I’ll share emphatically the frustration with the iPod when trying to use it for classical music. All remedies are partial, potentially counterproductive, and will cause a lot of work with uncertain result.

    None have yet made my iPod alien to the suspicion of causing some very ugly (windows – but spare us all the "you should by a Mac") blue screens.

    Re shuffling Haydn symphony tracks, do you actually notice the effect? is it truly so different than listening in order? ;-).

    Reply
    • Kirk says:

      Yeah, for the Haydn, it takes a trained ear to spot the randomness. I have to
      admit, that was not the best example. :-)

      Reply
  9. Michiel says:

    Thanks Kirk for the comments, always useful. I’m also an avid iPod user (and also eclectic, from Zappa to Bach, Joy Division to Prokofiev, Miles Davis to Clément Janequin, White Stripes to Schubert…).

    One thing I can help people with, is that I’ve made a standardised classical composer list, with the following ‘syntax’:
    lastname, firstname(s) (birthyear-deathyear)

    I now have a list of 387 composers (I have a lot of early music, that’s why there are so many composers), from
    Abel, Karl Friedrich (1723-1787)
    to
    Zanetti, Gasparo (fl.1625-1645)

    but of course including people like
    Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750)
    or
    Schubert, Franz (1797-1828)

    If you want to I can post the list here (but I’m not sure that would be appreciated), otherwise mail me at mcarpentier@pandora.be.

    Cheers –Mike

    Reply
  10. jhumanski says:

    I may have missed it, but what about pieces that span multiple discs? (For instance, Mahler’s 3rd.) How do you merge tracks in this case?

    Reply
      • ebernet says:

        I disagree – you can span multiple disks….
        extract the files as AIFF, use toast to create a "virtual: disc larger than one disk –
        just do a Save as Disc image
        then rip from that virtual disk – if you mount it, it will show up in iTunes
        I have done this for a bunch of live music CDs (moe., Grateful Dead, etc.)
        although that is not necessary anymore with gapless playback…

        Reply
        • Kirk says:

          OK, to be precise, you can’t do it with iTunes alone. But that’s interesting to
          know. (However, since it doesn’t matter any more, unless you really want to join
          long works…)

          Reply

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