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Taming iTunes 7 for Classical Music
(and Non-Classical Too)

Revised 13 Apr 2016

Copyright © 2006–2013 by Stan Brown, Oak Road Systems


Apple iTunes is great at handling files, but its support for so-called classical music is pitiful. This page explains my scheme to make iTunes and iPod work for my collection, which is mostly classical but includes some other genres. I’ve set things up to access classical and non-classical in the most natural ways that iTunes and iPod allow. You might not use my scheme as is, but I hope it will alert you to the choices and get you thinking about how to set up your own collection.

“Your solution, while still a kludge, is an elegant kludge that is about as perfect as you can get.”  —Owen Mathews

Update: This document was written for iTunes 6 with an iPod 5G, and updates kind of lapsed after iTunes 7. It’s preserved here for historical interest, but for current information you want Taming iTunes & iPod for Classical Music.

See also: Converting CDs to iTunes Audiobooks


What’s classical music?

“Classical music” isn’t really the right term. “Classical” is one period in the history of Western music. Calling it all “classical music” is like using “England” to mean the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — people usually know what you mean, but it’s not accurate.

I’ve heard “concert music”, “serious music”, “art music”, and “Western art music", and any of them would be better. But human language isn’t logical, and so like everyone else I’ll continue using “classical music” as a catch-all term.

What’s the problem?

In November 2005 I bought myself my first iPod, the 60 GB model. (I bought the 5G or video iPod for capacity, figuring I need about 45 GB to store all of my CD library, but I plan to store only audio on it.)

Update, December 2006: It took about eight months to get all the CDs loaded and play every track through at least once. For some reason — probably the fault of my CD drive —about 10% of the tracks had a loud short burst of static 6 to 8 seconds in, so they had to be re-imported. Now on iPod I’ve got 720 discs in 393 albums. That’s about 763 hours playing time, or just over a month. It’s about 36 GB of storage, less than I thought it would be, but luckily still too much for the 30 GB iPod.

Initially I was happy with iTunes, especially with the fact that it would jump out to the Gracenote CDDB database and use it to fill in the tags. (I’m using iTunes 6 for Windows.) But I quickly noticed all was not well, and almost as quickly found it was faster to fill in the tags myself from the CD liner notes than to edit the horrendously inaccurate and inconsistent metadata downloaded from the CDDB.

What’s wrong with the iTunes and CDDB experience, for the collector of classical music? In a nutshell, they were designed for pop music, not classical. Here are some specific problems:

I could go on, but you get the point. Indeed, if you’re reading this page you already know the pitfalls as well as I do.

What do we have to work with?

iPod Music menu

Given that I can do pretty much anything in iTunes with smart playlists, what can I do when I’m out on the road with iPod and want to play something I didn’t plan in a playlist? There are four relevant retrieval methods under Music:

That organization by album and by track number within album is the main problem we have to overcome. Composers doesn’t help, because there’s no way even under Composers to select a particular concerto or a particular opera in one operation.

A second problem with browsing is the narrow display on iPod. Even though late-model iPods will scroll horizontally in a menu list when you pause on an item, it takes time, and it’s irritating to pause and wait while scrolling vertically just to figure out where you are in a long list of “Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky Symphony Num...”

Now Playing on iPod

A second point will influence how to tag the music: The Now Playing screen shows the Name tag plus Artist and Album. The name scrolls, but artist and album don’t.

Browsing in iTunes

The iTunes browser (Ctrl-B, or Edit » Show Browser) lets you sort by almost any field, but only Genre, Artist, and Album are in the top part of the browser, so only those fields are available for quick selection and searching.

Shuffle in iTunes and iPod

'shuffle&'part of iTunes Playback preference screen Shuffle is a great idea, but only part of it is useful. You don’t want the movements of different works to be interspersed — not after you’ve tried it once, anyway — so shuffle by songs is useless for classical.

Shuffle by albums is a little better. On iPod it’s Settings » Shuffle » Albums. In iTunes, select Edit » Preferences » Playback and you get the ability to shuffle by by album or by grouping, as well as by the useless “song”. (Near by, you see just the relevant part of that dialog.)

In my scheme, when I want to shuffle a playlist of classical music, I use iTunes shuffle by album. For playlists of other music or spoken word, I shuffle by grouping. This depends, obviously, on the way I code the Album tag and the Grouping tag.


Can we join forces?

This page presents my plan, but I’d welcome some standardization even if it was different from my plan.

Reader Owen Mathews tells me that the needed tags are already in the ID3 standard.

Reader Peter Nelson asks whether there are any organizations trying to develop a consensus scheme “friendly to classical music”, then convince CD and software publishers to use it. Kirk McElhearn wrote to me in January 2007 about The Well-Tempered Database, with plans to do just that. He seeks feedback and help from other classical-music fans, though unfortunately he gives no details on the Web site.

What are my goals?

The iTunes browser (Ctrl-B or Edit » Show Browser) is actually quite good at letting me make selections. And the plan that I’ll make with iPod in mind will also work happily with iTunes.

As far as iPod is concerned, I think the main thing is to be able to select a specific work as a whole in one step, so that iPod plays that work and then stops. I might want to do any of these:

Once I’ve got a playlist (plain or smart), I often prefer to

Finally, wherever I am in any playlist, I want to

How do I tag everything?

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For effective browsing, you need effective tagging — that’s the whole point of this article.

And it’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way. I have to admit, I had imported 6388 “songs” — about three fourths of my collection — with a growing sense of unease, when finally I faced the fact that there were some flaws in my tagging. I’d been doing it all myself, not relying on the CDDB, so I didn’t have problems with inconsistency. But I couldn’t do some of the searches I wanted to do on iPod. In particular, I couldn’t decide on the spur of the moment to play a particular work, and only that work.

At that point I stopped, did a lot of research and experimentation and a lot of thinking, and came up with the scheme I’m about to present to you. And I gritted my teeth and retagged those 6388 “songs” before importing any more. (It would have been even worse without the labor-saving tips shown below.)

So here’s my plan ...

iTunes info screen for one track Name Artist Album Grouping Track Number Disc Number Composer Genre Part of a compilation Details are below, organized by tag. (The Contents lists the tags, or you can click on any item at right to jump to my recommendation. Depending on your Web browser, you may also be able to use the iTunes shortcuts shown in the figure, such as Alt-T or Command-T to go to the Track Number tag on this Web page.)

Joining tracks

Are you importing tracks that should play continuously, without the 2-second gap?

In iTunes 6, you must join tracks when you import them. Select the first track in the group of continuous tracks, press and hold the Shift key, and select the last in the group. Then select Advanced » Join tracks. Repeat for each group of tracks on the CD that must be joined.

In iTunes 7, this is much easier: iTunes itself recognizes which tracks are supposed to be played gapless, and it communicates this to your 5G iPod with 1.2 or later firmware. You keep the ability to jump right to a particular aria or section (assuming the original CD has a track marker there).

Gapless playback is always on for tracks from gapless CDs. You need not set Gapless Album manually in Get Info — in fact, according to Apple’s description that setting has no effect at all when playing tracks on iPod, and no effect in iTunes unless crossfade is turned on.

See also: this article at iLounge forum — for much more, do a Google search for “gapless” (without the quotes).

Labor-saving tips

Edit the tags before importing from CD. Since iTunes remembers your CDs, if you ever have to re-import a disc you won’t have to edit the tags again. iTunes is even happy to have different Album tags for tracks on a single CD. The exception is Track Number, which can’t be edited until after you’ve imported the CD.

Edit multiple tracks at once. Don’t type duplicate information in several tracks. Select all tracks that need the same edit, then edit the field(s) that are the same for those tracks. You can do this for CDs as well as tracks in the Library.

Following are three Windows procedures for selecting multiple tracks; the Mac procedures are similar but I don’t know the exact keys.

Once you’ve selected the tracks that need the same edit, press Ctrl-I or right-click and select Get Info.

Use keyboard shortcuts. A lot of people type in one field, them move a hand from the keyboard to the mouse to click in another field, then move the hand back to the keyboard and start typing. It’s a lot easier to use the shortcuts that are shown in the dialog, like Alt-L for the Album tag and Alt-G for Genre. And don’t neglect Alt-N and Alt-P for next or previous song. (Not shown, but useful, are Tab for next field and Shift-Tab for previous field in the same song.)

Use auto completion. In the Artist, Album, Grouping, Composer, and Genre tags, when you start typing something you’ve typed before, iTunes will automatically fill in the rest for you. You can use this to advantage.

For instance, if you’re importing the nine Beethoven symphonies with von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, you only need to fill in Artist, Album, Composer, and Genre for the first one. After that, you can type just the first few letters and let iTunes fill in the composer, performers, and genre. (Playing the same game with the Album tag, you’ll have to edit the symphony number and key signature, but that’s easier than typing the whole thing.)

The Name tag

Coding: “Classical” — Movement marking  (or)  Cuing  (or)  Full title
Other — Title

Examples: 1. Allegro non troppo
II-4. Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix
I’ll be with you in apple blossom time
Hobbit 14. Fire and Water

Bearing in mind that the Album tag will hold the work title, what goes in the Name tag?

This does leave a problem: on iPod, a playlist shows only the Name tag. Since Name is just the movement or cuing in a larger work, it’s effectively impossible to select a particular work from the middle of a playlist. That doesn’t bother me, since I select specific works by Genre or composer (the Artist tag), but I mention it so you won’t be surprised.

The Artist and Composer tags

Coding: composer in the Artist tag and performers in Composer

As mentioned above, to meet my goal A I have to lie to iTunes. (I first read this suggestion in the column Ask iLounge 9-16-05.)

Granted, this is controversial — maybe the only controversial section on this page. It’s obvious from the metadata in the CDDB that some people go one way and some go the other. Whether you follow this recommendation or not, you’ll gain some things and lose some things, as shown in the table below.

It all comes down to how you prefer to work. I search iPod (within a genre) by composer more often than by artist, and I browse iTunes by composer more often than by artist. I want to code things to make composer searches easier, and therefore I have to code the composer in the Artist tag and the artist(s) in Composer. If the performers are more important to you than the composers, you’d do it the other way.

How do you search?
More often by composer More often by artist
How to enter metadata Put composer in the Artist tag and artist(s) in Composer Put artist in Artist and composer in Composer
Browsing iTunes library Middle column is composer (called “Artists”) — still possible to select everything by one artist but takes extra steps Middle column is artist — still possible to select everything by one composer but takes extra steps
Browsing iPod by genre See composer within genre (e.g. oboe concertos → Albinoni) See artist within genre (e.g. string quartets → Guarneri)
Browsing iPod by artist Use Composers list Use Artists list
Browsing iPod by composer Use Artists list Use Composers list
Now Playing screen on iPod Line 2 shows composer; artist(s) not shown Line 2 shows artist(s); composer probably part of album title (line 3)

Example: Artist tag: Haydn, Franz Joseph (1732-1809)
Composer tag: Alfred Brendel; Claudio Abbado, Berlin PO

In the Artist tag, the composer’s last name needs to come first: this is essential for browsing in iPod’s Music menu and for using the iTunes browser. I add the composer’s dates, since I only have to type them once.

Abbreviations for performers
ASMFAcademy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields
COChamber Orchestra
POPhilharmonic Orchestra
RSORadio Symphony Orchestra
SOSymphony Orchestra

In the Composer tag, I list the conductor and orchestra, separated by a comma. (I use the abbreviations shown at right for performing ensembles.) When there’s a soloist, I list the soloist first, separated from conductor and orchestra with a semicolon. If there are several soloists, I put the principal one or two in the Composer tag and the rest in Comments, and I use the abbreviations shown below to distinguish multiple soloists.

Logically, the performer(s) should also be entered last name first. But I use first-last order for two reasons. First, it’s easier to read when there are multiple performers. Second, even with last-first order I still couldn’t browse by performer, not effectively anyway. Why? There are multiple performers for almost every work (conductor and orchestra, vocalist and accompanist, etc.). So Abbado will come first when he’s conducting a pure orchestral work, but not when he’s conducting a concerto. As a practical matter, the only way to find all of his performances — whether I list him as “Abbado, Claudio” or “Claudio Abbado” — is with a smart playlist, “Composer contains Abbado”.

For non-classical music, I follow the same pattern. Otherwise I’d have Gershwin and Bernstein and others as Artist for their “serious” music and Composer for their popular songs. The consequence is that if I want everything performed by Glenn Miller, I have to look him up as Composer and not as Artist.

The Year tag

If I know the year the work was composed, I put it here; otherwise I leave this tag blank. If the year of performance has some special significance, I put it in the Album tag.

The Album tag (classical)

Abbreviations for works
Abbreviations for instruments and voices
fh(French) horn

Coding: “Classical” — Composer WorkSubtitle” (Date Performer)
Other — see next section

Examples: Bach Brandenburg cto #1 F (Pinnock, English Concert)
Beethoven Sym #1 C (1963 von Karajan, Berlin)
Brahms Q5-p op34 f (Eschenbach, Amadeus)
Corelli Cto grosso op6: 7 D (Marriner, ASMF)
Grofé Grand Canyon suite (Bernstein, NY)
Mahler Sym # 1 D "Titan" (Walter, Columbia)
Mendelssohn Cto-v-p in d (Kremer, Argerich, Orpheus)
Rossini Barbiere di Siviglia (Callas, Alva)
Schubert Son-p D959 A (O'Conor)

Coding album titles for “classical” works is complicated, because there are so many variations. But you have to do it, not only for works with several movements but for one-movement works; see below for the reasons.

Here are the parts of my Album tag:

You might be wondering where to code the actual title of the album. If the album title actually matters to you — and for art music I don’t really think it does — you can always put it in the Comments tag. I decided that I really don’t care about the original title of an album, in general. I never want to listen to the album Brahms Fourth Symphony and Tragic Overture as a unit, even though that’s how the CD came.

Why code album titles for one-movement works?

My goals A and B are to be able to select a specific work to play. As you saw above, the only groupings iPod lets you select are an artist, a composer, a playlist, or an album. You can select an album within artist or composer, but playlists are presented in one long unstructured list. So once again I have to lie to iTunes and code each work as an album.

This might seem like overkill: you might prefer to leave the Album tag blank for any short work, one that is a single track. But I recommend you always fill it in, for easier browsing in iTunes or on iPod:

The Album tag (non-classical)

Coding: “Classical” — see previous section
Other — Performer Album

Examples: Tolkien Silmarillion
Clooney Sings Johnny Mercer
Damn Yankees

For non-classical music and spoken word, I put the actual album title, prefixed if necessary with the performer’s last name. For these types, the album title is likely to have some significance, though not always — the publisher or artist has usually arranged the songs on CD for some purpose. This lets me listen to an album like Michael Feinstein’s Over There (World War I songs).

For Broadway shows and movie soundtracks, I code just the name of the show, not the performers. If I had a particular show both from Broadway and from the movie, I’d add (Broadway) or (movie) to the title.

The Track Number and Disc Number tags

I renumber the tracks of almost every “classical” work; the main exception is operas, where the libretto is keyed to the disc and track numbers.

For example, in my set of Tchaikovsky symphonies, number 3 is on tracks 3-4-5-6-7 (of 7) on disc 2 (of 4). I renumbered those to tracks 1-2-3-4-5 (of 5) on disc 1 (of 1). While it’s true that file names are slightly shorter with disc 1 of 1 than with a multi-disc album, my main motive is to keep the movements in order while coding the total number of movements.

For non-classical music and spoken word, I keep the original track numbers. With these types of music, the order of the program on an album is often significant.

The Grouping tag

Coding: “Classical” — always blank
Other — see below

“Classical” music

Since the work is identified in the Album tag, there’s no need to use the Grouping tag for art music. (In any event, iPod don’ know nothin’ ’bout no Grouping tag. Either this is just an entry in the iTunes database, or it’s a real tag but iPod doesn’t give you any way to view it, much less search on it.)

An alternative view: Reader Owen Mathews suggests that the Grouping tag can have a use even for classical music. He points out that shuffle by grouping is fairly new in iTunes, and therefore there’s hope that it will be added to iPod before too long. He proposes the idea of strong and weak groupings. A strong grouping would be the movements of a symphony, and a weak grouping would be the Brahms Libeslieder waltzes.

He proposes matching the Grouping tag to the Album tag for strong groups, but leaving the Grouping tag empty for weak groups. The effect is that he can shuffle by grouping (in iTunes) to keep each symphony together but randomize the waltzes, or shuffle by album (in iTunes or iPod) to keep the symphony and the waltzes together in original album order.

This approach has much to recommend it, and it’s similar to what I do for other genres; see immediately below.

All other genres

For non-classical music and spoken word, how I code the Grouping tag depends on whether the order of tracks on the album is significant. If it is, I make Grouping match Album; if the order is not significant, I leave the Grouping tag blank. For instance, the order is significant in cast albums and soundtracks, as it is in audiobooks imported from CD.

This causes iTunes shuffle to work in a sensible way for all types of recordings; please refer to the description above.

The Genre tag

Coding: see below

Examples: AO/Baroque

“Classical” genres
(see musical periods below)
AA/periodChamber music
AC/Harpsichord/periodHarpsichord concerto
AC/Piano/periodPiano concerto
AC/Violin/periodViolin and/or cello concerto
AC/*/periodConcerto for other solo instruments
AO/periodOrchestral music
AS/HarpsichordSolo harpsichord
AS/Organ/periodSolo organ
AS/Piano/periodSolo piano
AS/Violin/periodSolo violin and/or cello
AV/Choral/periodSecular choral work
AV/Lieder/periodSecular song for solo
AV/Sacred/periodSacred solo or choral work
A/HumorHumor and parody (classical)
Other genres
B/BandBig Band
B/CountryCountry songs
B/HumorHumorous songs (non-classical)
B/NA MixedNew Age instrumental
B/NA PianoNew Age piano solo
B/PopTraditional pop, including swing and show tunes
B/Pop EuropeEuropean pop
B/Rock60s&70s rock ’n’ roll
B/ShowsBroadway and filmed musicals
B/XmasChristmas music
S/FictionNovels and stories
S/HumorSpoken humor
S/InstructionalInstructional audio

You’ll notice there are three humor categories. A/Humor is “classical” music humor: Anna Russell, for instance. B/Humor is popular song humor, from Flanders & Swann to “Monster Mash”. S/Humor is purely spoken.

I tag “classical” music both for type of music and for musical period (see below) — after all, a C.P.E. Bach flute concerto is quite a different listening experience from a Nielsen flute concerto. With smart playlists it’s easy to select all romantic music, or all piano concertos, and so forth.

From the list above you’ll notice that every genre of art music starts with A. I have a smart playlist, “Art Music”, to select all the art music genres.

Let me emphasize that I made up this list of genres to match my own collection and tastes. It may not be suitable for you as is, but you can use it for ideas about how you want to categorize your music, bearing in mind what sorts of searches you’ll want to do and what playlists you’ll want to create.

Musical periods

There is no perfect list of musical periods. Not only do musicologists disagree, but many composers straddled two or more periods chronologically or stylistically.

Also, one’s own taste has a lot to do with it. For instance, I lump anything before the Baroque into one period because it’s not my primary interest, even though in college I learned to distinguish several periods.

For what it’s worth, here is my personal list of musical periods: Antique, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Romantic Late, Twentieth [Century]. I don’t always use the most natural name, but my list has the virtue that alphabetical order matches chronological order.

The Part of a compilation tag

Coding: always unchecked

Since each “album” is a work, by definition no album is a compilation.

What’s the Part of a compilation tag?

What’s this tag for, anyway? I’m probably missing something obvious, but I never did find a clear definition of “compilation” in an iTunes context. After research failed, I tried experimentation, and here’s what I found:

Checked or OnUnchecked or Off
iTunes Edit » Preferences » General » Group compilations

In the Browser, “Compilations” is added at the top of the Artists column.

Artists whose only tracks are in a single compilation are removed from the Artists column. An artist who has songs in multiple albums is listed, and if you click on that artist then the Albums column shows all albums containing that artist, regardless whether they’re compilations.

Artists are all listed, and the pseudo-artist “Compilations” doesn’t appear.

iPod Settings » Compilations

In the Music menu, Compilations is added. It’s not added to the list of artists.

Artists whose only tracks are in a single compilation are removed from the Artists screens. An artist who has songs in multiple albums is listed, and if you click on that artist then the next screen shows all albums or songs with that artist, whether or not they’re in compilations.

Compilations is removed from the Music menu. All artists are listed on the Artists screens.

iPod Settings » Main Menu » Compilations

This setting controls whether Compilations appears in the main menu. But iPod ignores this setting for the purpose of listings on the Artists screen; only Settings » Compilations affects which artists are listed.

Update, July 2008: There’s a helpful description of the Part of a compilation tag in the 13 June 2008 edition of Ask iLounge. Based on that I corrected a a misstatement in the table above.

What if I have multiple recordings of the same piece?

This is actually covered in the The Album tag (classical). By coding the key performers in parentheses, I distinguish between different performances. Thus I have album titles “Brahms Cto-p #1 (Brendel)” and “Brahms Cto-p #1 (Serkin)”. As it happens, I don’t have any case of multiple performances of the same work by the same performers, but if I did I could add a year: “Beethoven Sym #7 (von Karajan 1963)” and “Beethoven Sym #7 (von Karajan 1954)”.

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