Tagging Classical Music

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Having correct tags for your music is essential in any music library, but it can be even more important if you listen to classical music; after all, you’ve probably got quite a few preludes, adagios, and first movements. When you import your music, you need to make sure that the tracks get tagged not only correctly, but in a way that is useful so you can find the music you want when you want it.

When you insert a CD in your computer, iTunes searches on the Gracenote CD Database to see if it can find artist, album, and track information. (This occurs if you have the Connect to Internet When Needed option checked in iTunes’ General preferences.) But if you’ve imported more than a handful of classical CDs into iTunes, you’ve certainly seen that the information is often either wrong, incomplete, or that the different tags show up in the wrong fields. You need to correct this—manually, alas—to be able be best manage your music. For only if the tags are correct will you be able to find what you want in a large library.

The first problem is that many classical CDs show up as compilations. A compilation is simply an album where the compilation tag is set to “Yes.” However, the idea of a compilation is one that doesn’t work well for classical music. Compilations are generally “various artists” albums, such as Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues , Brian Eno’s Music for Films, or Lee Scratch Perry’s Arkology . All of these albums or sets contain music by a selection of artists, rather than just one. But while many classical albums may actually be compilations, where the artists listed change from one piece to another, it is not always useful for them to be listed as such.

The first step is to nuke the compilation tag. To do this, select all the tracks on an album (either before or after importing), then select File > Get Info (or press Command+I on a Mac or Control+I on Windows). Become familiar with this window; it’s called Multiple Song Information, and it’s where you’ll make changes to tags for more than one song at a time.

In the above image, you can see that the Compilation tag has been set to No. The check box (where the cursor is pointing) is checked, telling iTunes to change that tag. But none of the other check boxes are checked, so when you click OK, iTunes won’t change them. (You don’t need to check this box; when you change the tag, iTunes does it for you.)

Changing Track Names

All too often, the track names for classical CDs returned by CDDB (CD Database) are incorrect. In some cases, they are blank, and in others, totally useless: you may find Symphony No. 5 listed for all the tracks of that symphony. In other cases, you may find that the track names are listed in the artist tags, or in other odd places. To change the name of individual tracks, click a track in iTunes’s Song Name column to select it and press Enter. Type the new name, then press Enter again, or click another track.

You can also select a track and choose File > Get Info, then click the Info tab. Similar to the Multiple Song Information window shown earlier, this produces an information window for a single track. Enter a new name in the Name field, then press Next to move on to the next track, or click OK to save the change. You can change any of the tags for individual tracks in this manner; however, if you’re changing the artist or album name, it’s easier to change several tracks at once.

Choosing the Correct Artist

If you’ll be using iTunes or your iPod to listen to classical music, you’ll want an easy way to find the music you desire. With this in mind, you must decide which is the correct artist for your music. The artist you tag your music with doesn’t have to be the actual performer. Since iTunes only lets you browse by genre, artist, and album, it can be useful to change the Artist tag to the composer’s name; this way you can browse, say, all of your Schubert music by browsing his name as artist. On the iPod you can browse by composer, but if you want to organize your library on iTunes before syncing to the iPod, it can be helpful to view composers and their music.

You may, on the other hand, want to leave the artist’s name as is: this lets you see, for example, all of your recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at a glance. However, it can get a bit confusing when the name of a symphony orchestra and conductor is written differently: the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, could appear as any of the following:

  • Leonard Bernstein and New York Philharmonic
  • New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein
  • Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic [and other performers]
  • NY Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein
  • And so on. But, with the exception of discs containing additional performers, all these are the same. Take the time to standardize these tags: choose the one you prefer (or create your own, such as NPY/Bernstein), and set this tag for all your recordings containing this orchestra and conductor.

    Whichever solution you choose—actual performers’ names or composers—pay close attention to the spelling and ordering of these names: for iTunes and the iPod, Johann Sebastian Bach is not the same as J. S. Bach, nor Bach, Johann S., nor Bach, J. S. Each one will result in a separate entry.

    Tagging Your Works

    Another way to tag your music is to change the album name to reflect the name of an individual work. Let’s say you have a CD of Charles Ives’ “Concord Sonata,” but it also contains a few other pieces of music. You can select the four tracks of the sonata, then set their album name as Concord Sonata, perhaps adding the performer’s name after that.

    In the above example, I’ve taken four tracks from a recording of music by Charles Ives and labeled them with the album name Concord - Aimard. The CD contains the Concord Sonata, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, but also songs by Susan Graham and Aimard. So to separate the Concord Sonata from the songs, I’ve tagged the former as the name of the sonata, and the latter as follows:

    Longer names can be problematic. For example, you could name a favorite recording of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony something like Symphony No. 3 - Bernstein, to separate it from other versions you may have. (If you only have one version, you probably won’t need to add a performer or conductor’s name.) This works fine with iTunes, but there is a small problem with most iPods. The iPod display doesn’t show enough characters when you display a list. The iPod photo will scroll selected list entries so you can eventually see the entire entry, but this is not the case with other iPods. On iPods other than the photo, you’ll only see Symphony No. 3, but not the conductor’s name. In this case, if you have a lot of symphonies, and especially have multiple versions of some works, you’ll need to shorten their names: Sym No. 3 - Bernstein, for example, is short enough to read on these iPods.

    Getting the Genre Right

    Another useful field to examine is the Genre field. iTunes and the iPod use a preset group of genres, so most of your classical music will show up as Classical. However, you can add your own genres, and iTunes and the iPod manage these just fine. For example, should all your classical music be Classical, or should some of it be Symphonic, Chamber Music, Piano, Lieder, and Opera? Would you like to browse your library by Recitals, Baroque Music, or Organ Music? Piece of cake. Just select a group of tracks, display the Multiple Song Information window, and type your own genre in the Genre field. Click OK to save this change. The next time, you’ll only need to type the first few letters of the Genre or select it from the menu; iTunes will have remembered it for you. When you set genres like this, you can browse your music more effectively: both in iTunes and on the iPod, you’ll find it easier to spot what you want.

    Adding Comments

    The Comments field is designed for you to add, well, comments. You can put anything you want there: you could say, for example, that you love the way Fischer-Dieskau sings one specific song; you could mention the soloists for an opera; or you could put recording date information. Another good use for the Comments field is to add keywords that you can then use to create smart playlists. Say you have a lot of string quartets; if you add “string quartet” to the comments field, you can create a smart playlist that looks for tracks whose comments contain those words, thereby creating an instant playlist of all your string quartets. Do the same for “organ,” “viola da gamba,” or other instruments; add comments about soloists, conductors, or live recordings. The sky’s the limit, since you can add anything you want.

    One note: smart playlists made from comments generally work best if you import works as single tracks (see the previous article Classical Music on the iPod and iTunes ). Otherwise, you’ll end up with a bunch of individual movements. If you import works as single tracks you can create a smart playlist of, say, piano sonatas, listening to an entire sonata before moving on to the next one.


    With all this in mind, the iPod and iTunes are great for listening to classical music. Once you realize the constraints, and the best ways to import and organize your music, you may never look back. You may only use your CDs once, to import them into iTunes, and use your iPod for all your classical music listening.

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