Classical music: a game of tags

by 5:4

i was ruefully amused yesterday to read an article by one of my esteemed blogospherical brothers-in-arms, Tim Rutherford-Johnson. Tim was bewailing his experiences of the use—or, more accurately, misuse—of tags applied to works of a classical persuasion on Spotify. On the one hand, i use Spotify so rarely that i haven’t experienced Tim’s particular problem; yet the usage and abusage of audio file tags has been a bête noire of mine for the best part of a decade. For those unclear as to what all this is about, tags are simply the assorted fields of data that contain the various attributes of an audio file, chiefly the artist, and the titles of the track and album from which it comes, but also an extensive range of additional fields, such as the track/disc number, the year of release, the genre, and many more. All of these tags can be edited by the listener within whatever program they use for digital music; and this is just as well, as while tags are pre-populated in digital downloads, and there exists a number of online services that automatically supply the tag information whenever a CD is put into the computer, almost without fail, in both cases, there are errors aplenty.

For more populist musical idioms, the information that should be contained in these tags is completely straightforward; the artist, track titles, album title, etc. are all clear and present no real issues. But Tim’s right to flag up the fact that in the realm of classical fare, what should be put in these tags is often a matter of debate and personal judgement, and without some thought and care, can become entirely meaningless. The first issue it raises is that of the distinction between an ‘artist’ and a ‘composer’. The Artist tag is one of the most important in audio software, while the Composer is there as an optional extra. (, the website that collates and lists everything one has listened to, only pays attention to the Artist tag, which demonstrates how secondary the Composer tag really is.) In pop music, the audience focuses on the artist while the composer may not even be known. So Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, for example, will obviously have Kylie tagged as the Artist, while the composers of the song, Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis, can be tagged as the composers—but, it could be reasonably asked, why would you bother, apart from for the sake of completeness?

Classical music, though, is different. Take Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: Mahler is obviously the composer and could be tagged as such, but what to put in the Artist tag is where the debate begins. Some would say that this is where the orchestra/conductor should be shown, but i have never agreed with this. Perhaps i’m biased due to being a composer myself, but i have always felt that the composer should be tagged as the Artist. They created the work, they are famous for having created that work, they (one hopes) are the one whose name is emblazoned most prominently on the accompanying artwork. It’s not irrelevant that the symphony is being performed by the CBSO, LSO or whoever, but it’s of secondary importance, just as the composer of a pop song is (in this context) secondary. If this approach is not taken, then the composer’s name needs to be included in each track title, which convolutes the tagging process and invites a veritable host of problems with regard to what should go in the Artist tag: does the orchestra name go first, then the conductor? what punctuation between them? is the orchestra name abbreviated? are soloists mentioned too? It’s ridiculous to take this approach, but the practice is surprisingly common, and seems to have afflicted the music Tim was attempting to navigate (the Artist field isn’t visible in his screenshot, so it’s impossible to be sure).

But the main problem with which Tim was confronted, and which has always been the most pervasive issue in the tagging of classical music, was to do with the Title tag. Contemporary music, with its self-conscious emphasis on smart-‘n’-snappy titles, often avoids problems in this area, but it’s not immune; multi-movement works, particularly symphonies and the like, require a little more dedication to make them meaningful and useful. It may seem sensible when entering tag data simply to duplicate what appears in the booklet/PDF, but context is everything. To return to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a glance at the booklet yields this:

I. Trauermarsch

If that was used as the Title tag, it would appear one was listening to a work by Mahler called “I. Trauermarsch” which is a little nonsensical, or at least, incomplete. This is precisely what Spotify was offering Tim. Far better to include the name of the work itself in the Title tag as well:

Symphony No. 5 – I. Trauermarsch

Of course, even now there is scope for inconsistencies. Glancing at another recording, the work is titled “Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor – should that be included in the Title tag? Furthermore, the same recording lists the first track including its tempo indications:

I. Trauermarsch (In gemessen Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt)

Should this be included too? Potentially, the Title tag could become this, which while admittedly rather long and lumbering is perfectly accurate and would be infinitely better than the anonymous scree of meaningless tags used in the Haydn symphonies Tim highlighted:

Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor – I. Trauermarsch (In gemessen Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt)

What, then, of the orchestras, conductors, et al? How to distinguish between my Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording and the one by Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmoniker? or, for that matter, the transcription of it for the organ played by David Briggs (which is amazing by the way; highly recommended). It’s a personal thing, but i usually incorporate this into the album title: “Symphony No. 5 (Solti)”, although in the organ example i’ve made the Artist “Gustav Mahler (tr. David Briggs)”. That’s a personal choice, and it highlights the fact that there’s always going to be a certain amount of subjectivity and whim involved in the tagging of classical music. But Tim’s point is bang on the money – why does classical music continue to shroud itself in ignorance of the most correct and useful way of using tags? It’s not isolated to Spotify by any means; i’ve experienced the same with downloads from various sources, including the iTunes Store, Presto Classical, NMC Recordings and others who really should know better. So i’d like to echo Tim’s plea that the classical music world—and, just as importantly, its listeners—wake up to the realities of audio tags and finally give them some meaning. Hopefully, pace Tim, its mind will not blow—although, if and when the day finally dawns, mine just might.

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You’re going to hate this, I can tell! – but this is what I do in such cases (I have nearly 90,000 tracks in iTunes, so their consistent organization is crucial):

Album Title – ‘Composer: Main title of piece (in brief)’ (e.g. ‘Mahler: Symphony no. 5’)

Album Artist – either:
‘[Orchestra|Quartet|etc.]/[Conductor|Director]; Soloist(s)’
or: ‘Performer (instrument); Performer (instrument);’ etc.

Track titles can be shortened to the title of the individual movement – contrary to when you say “If this approach is not taken, then the composer’s name needs to be included in each track title” – the Album title is also displayed when any track is played, and the composer’s name is there. Thus the individual track titles can happily be reduced to e.g. ‘I. Trauermarsch’ (the ‘In gemessen…’ can be included if you like, but isn’t necessary).

So using your example…
Album ‘Mahler: Symphony no. 5’
Artist ‘Chicago SO (or in full Symphony Orchestra if you’d rather)/Georg Solti’
Track title ‘I. Trauermarsch’

Told you you’d hate it…!



PS. I guess you’re leaving the minefield that is ‘Genre’ for another post?!


I have used the free program Mediamonkey to access and organise my audio and video files for several years. Entering and categorising tags (or to give it a more precise term, metadata) takes time and effort but I view it as an integral part of studying the music. Mediamonkey provides separate tags for composer, conductor and lyricist, several others, and you can add your own customised tags. It also allows you to add images and even complete lyrics.

Assuming that portable and other players show artist, album and title, I assume artist refers to performer (I use a different standard when tagging audio files and speech recordings but let’s leave that issue out). So –
Artist – key singers or soloists/ensemble or orchestra/conductor
Album – composer/piece or album title
Title – Movement or song name (as much detail as possible without getting ridiculous).

Where the album features more than one work, the composer’s name has to go in front of the title (but if the album features work by the same performer, the performer’s name can go at the front of the album tag and left off the title tag.

Genre is very subjective, and some of the tags provided by software or entered by providers can be very silly, although they sometimes make you think about how different people approach music. Some tracks I’ve bought from amazon I have tagged as avant-garde, have arrived tagged as dance/electronica.

I keep genre tags to a minimum. For instance, I have dropped using a tag for soul because only about 2 albums come under this category. I rather confusingly use acoustic to cover folk and country. I have separate genres for opera, musical, avant-garde, minimalist, modern (meaning roughly 20th Century to present day), Romantic, Baroque, Early, Recital, Song, soundtrack, choral. I have not bothered with tags such as symphony or quartet as these are usually obvious from the title.

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