Bits of information needed to track down classical music

10th January 2020 | Daily Life, Musings | 3 comments

At a new year party I had an interesting chat with a young man who  likes music and likes to listen to it at university along with his friends. He himself likes classical music among other kinds. Many of his friends are not familiar with the world of classical music, but are open-minded and willing to include it in their playlists if they hear something they like.

He made an thought-provoking point about the amount of information you need to find a piece of classical music on, say, Spotify (or other digital music services). The example he gave was the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, which he’d been listening to. Some of his friends had liked its slow movement, and wanted to add it to their playlists.

But in order to do that, they had to possess several bits of information:

1. Tchaikovsky (composer) 2. Violin Concerto 3. In D major  4. opus 35.  5. Second movement  6. Artist (eg David Oistrakh).

My young friend commented: ‘In pop music, it’s all about the artist. You start with them and it’s easy to find their songs. Even if they’re  performing a work by someone else, it’s still categorised under their name. In fact, the original composer is often left off the identifying information.

‘In classical music, it’s the other way round. It’s all about the work. You can’t track it down by starting with the artist – unless the artist happens to have recorded the piece you’re looking for. If they haven’t, you’re stuck – or at least it’s more difficult to find it.

‘Even if you find the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, there might be a bunch of recordings by violinists you’ve never heard of. How are you to know which one is good? I’m not saying it’s impossible – I’m just saying it puts extra barriers in the way. It makes it hard for people to give it a go.’

It’s true, isn’t it, that in classical music it has been all about the work. And the works have complicated titles. I find myself thinking about this.


  1. Mark

    Yes, very true – and even if you do know the metadata, it’s frequently not properly stored with the music (even though the relevant fields for Composer, Work, etc., do exist for MP3 metatdata and other music formats). It’s shocking that even labels that specialise in classical music make such a mess of their metadata – how often will you find “Beethoven” listed as the Artist on a track, for instance?

    There are some streaming services that are trying to address this, notably Idagio and (to a lesser extent) Roon, but they are almost invisible compared the the giant services like Spotify and Apple (and quite a bit more expensive, too …)

    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you Mark for these comments. Another issue I think is that all tracks are classified as ‘songs’. If someone thinks a Beethoven piano sonata is a ‘song’, how are they going to look it up?

  2. SFSteve

    I know it doesn’t work in every situation but when actually listening to a composition that one finds interesting all one has to do these days is dial up Siri or an app like Shazam and point it at the loudspeaker. (While typing this and listening to youtube I tried it and it worked perfectly, even in the case of the rather obscure Korngold Symphony — got the precise recording right as well.)


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