iTunes Goes Classical

Those of us who are Classical Music fans are used to being left behind to pick up the scraps as the march of technology moves relentlessly on.  It wasn’t always so.  In fact, the birth of the long-playing record was driven by the fact that much of classical music took the form of lengthy and elaborate works.  By contrast, the popular music of the day came in short, punchy and snappy song forms.  However, by the time the 60’s were over, popular music had taken to the album format and assumed it as its own.  Classical music has seen the short end of the stick ever since.

So imagine my surprise when the latest update to iTunes (version 12.5.3 for both Mac and Windows) contains quite a significant addition for Classical Music listeners.  Having said that, the feature is pretty well hidden, and there are no announcements by Apple trumpeting the new feature to the masses.  But Apple marches to the beat of its own drum – they are leaders rather than followers, and when a significant new feature like this comes along, you have to wonder what it signifies for the future.

So what is it?  Well, the first indication is something that is easy to miss.  If you select a single track and choose “Get Info”, you are presented with the metadata for the track.  The first item is “Song”, and if you look closely, you will see that it now has an up/down arrow symbol next to it.  But you won’t look closely, and you won’t see it.  It is only when the second indication comes along that you will sit up and take notice.  If you instead select multiple tracks and choose “Get Info”, this time the very first item is a checkbox labeled “use work and movement”.  Now you’ve got my attention!

Let’s take a sort-of-typical Classical Album as an example of why this useful and how it works.  This album comprises Holst’s ‘The Planets’ coupled with Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’.  Here is a screenshot of how this album looks on my iTunes desktop:

P20a

You can see that there are two unrelated works on the album.  This gives rise to a typical question – What is the name of the album?  It is both cumbersome and impractical to call it “Holst: The Planets; Britten: Four Sea Interludes” or some variant on that.  My personal preferred solution is to give the album a title using the main work on the album – in this case The Planets.  But I want to be able to differentiate it from other recordings of The Planets, so my standard practice is to call it “Holst – The Planets (Bernstein)”.  You may approach this problem differently, but that’s what I do.  Since the name of the album contains the title of the work, I can name each individual movement by its title, such as “Mars, the Bringer of War”.  Now everything looks tidy.  However, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes gives me a problem, since they are not movements of The Planets.  My solution, therefore, is to name those four tracks using “Britten: Four Sea Interludes – ” followed by the titles of the individual movements.  You can see the result in the screenshot above.  It’s clumsy, perhaps, but it works.

Time to use this album to experiment with the “use work and movement” feature.  So I select all seven tracks from The Planets, and choose “Get Info”.  Next, I check the “use work and movement” checkbox.  Here’s what appears:

P20b

Where there was previously one entry “song”, we now get entries for “work”, “movement [ ] of [ ]”, and “name”.  I enter ‘The Planets’ into “work”, but leave the others untouched for the moment, and click OK.  Then I do the same thing for the four ‘Britten: Four Sea Interlude’ tracks (this time I enter ‘Four Sea Interludes’ as my “work” entry).  Here’s what we end up with:

P20c

Clearly, this isn’t what I had in mind.  You would have expected the individual names of the various movements to show up, but instead the Work name is replicated in each field.  Clearly this is a bug that needs to be addressed in a future update.  For the time being, therefore, each track has to be edited individually to correct this problem.

The process is simple, but tedious.  You edit each track individually, by selecting the track and choosing “Get Info”.  Now you will see that the top line says “work name” followed by an up/down arrow symbol.  Click on the arrow symbol and choose “song”.  The field will revert back to the original track title, such as “Mars, the Bringer of War”.  Select that and copy it.  Click on the up/down arrow symbol again, and this time choose “work name”.  It will revert back to the previous configuration, and you can paste “Mars, the Bringer of War” into the “name” field.  Finally, if you like, you can fill in the “movement [ ] of [ ]” fields with the appropriate values.  Here’s what it will look like:

P20d

Repeat the process for all the tracks in the album.  Now you will have a much more useful representation of this album:

P20e

I think this layout makes a lot of sense, and shows indications of having been carefully thought through.  For example, notice that the header for each work has grabbed the Composer from the composer field of the metadata.  Notice also that the name of each individual movement is preceded by a Roman numeral.  This is taken from the first number you entered in the “movement [ ] of [ ]” field.  If you didn’t enter a number, the Roman numeral is omitted.  As yet, the second of those numbers doesn’t seem to have a visible presence.  I also checked that it is smooth and trouble-free to switch between this new mode and the conventional mode by toggling the “use work and movement” field, and indeed it appears to switch back and forth in trouble-free fashion.

I use a serious metadata editor called Yate to keep the metadata in my audio files in a careful semblance of order.  If I use Yate to examine the metadata on the files subjected to this new treatment, I find that it shows all of the new data in fields identified as “Work name”, “Movement name”, and “Movement [ ] of [ ]”, and in addition there is a checkbox for “show work name in iTunes”.  So clearly, the metadata is being stored in a manner that at least one serious metadata App house is familiar with.  I asked Barry at Yate (the go-to guy for all things metadata) for clarity on this, and indeed there is more to it than meets the eye.  For Apple Lossless files (m4a) this new data maps directly to existing metadata fields, and everything works smoothly.  However, with MP3, AIFF, and some WAV files, which use the ID3 format for metadata, Apple plays fast and loose.  They shoe-horn the new data into the “Grouping” field, which is already widely used in the (mostly non-Apple) community to hold other custom data.  For most people, though, this won’t be a problem in practice.

So, in summary, what appears to have been added to iTunes without fanfare is a seriously thought-out extension of the iTunes internal database with Classical Music users in mind.  The one bug I have highlighted will surely be fixed in an upcoming update (surely, surely, surely?).  There are other bugs, too.  For example, if the Artist field differs from track to track within a movement (for example, to indicate featured soloists), this is not handled correctly in the display.  I have also encountered an instance where one track refused to agree to become part of a “work and movement” grouping, and I could only get it to behave by individually editing its metadata in Yate.  Teething pains, one hopes.

I am intrigued as to what this all means.  Are there going to be further expansions of iTunes’ ability to handle classical music?  I’m thinking of explicit fields to hold orchestra, conductor, and featured soloists.  In addition, I will be looking for iTunes to be able to use those new fields to improve navigation through the database.  I mean, we are currently able to sort by ‘Artist’, ‘Composer’, and ‘Genre’ – why not ‘Work’, ‘Conductor’, and ‘Orchestra’?  I have to believe that if Apple has gone to the trouble to implement these initial new features, it is more likely than not that there is more to come.

So, all in all, a very worthy development.  Unfortunately, given the nature of the bug I described in detail – whose workaround is heavy on manual labor – I doubt I’ll be taking full advantage of it in the near future, since my library has over 3,000 albums.  But I guess for the time being I’ll probably make use of it on all new additions.