Why Can’t Music Streaming Services Give Good Recommendations for Classical Music?

I regularly use Apple Music, and sometimes the recommendations I receive in the For You section are spot on. They learn from what I listen and what I love (though I don’t love tracks or albums very much), and they recommend music by the same or similar artists, or from similar genres. On any given day, I’d say a quarter of their picks are things that I really would like to listen to. And I think that a 250 batting average for this type of recommendation, which is all done by algorithm, is pretty good.

However, when they recommend classical music, they tend to strike out a lot more. Last night, I listened to an album of Schubert’s piano trios, and this morning, I see these recommendations:

Classical recommendations

It’s fair to say that I’d be potentially interested in listening to many if not most of these recommendations, but are they really “like Schubert: Piano Trios, Op. 99 & 100?” No, not really. There are two recordings of violin concertos, an opera, some vocal music (Monteverdi’s Vespers), and some solo piano music.

What would be “like” those Schubert piano trios? Perhaps other chamber works, such as piano trios by Haydn or Beethoven. Maybe some string quartets by Schubert, Beethoven, or other Romantic composers. Or some other music by Schubert: his piano music, lieder, etc.

It’s not clear why these recommendations were chosen. With pop, rock, or jazz, the recommendations tend to be based on the artists performing the music, whereas here, this isn’t the case. None of the three artists who performed the Schubert trios I listened to (Andreas Staier, Daniel Sepec, and Roel Dieltiens) are present in the recommendations. Two of the recommendations are on the same label, Harmonia Mundi, and, in classical music, that can a good reason to recommend music, as independent labels do have a specific character. But I scratch my head to try to figure out how these recommendations were chosen.

The Igor Levit set is in my iCloud Music Library, and I have listened to it before, but I don’t know any of the other recordings. The only commonality I find is that the Schubert I listened to was released in 2016, and five of the seven recommendations were released the same year, with two others in 2014 and 2015.

It isn’t easy to tailor recommendations for classical music, and I suspect that Apple Music is simply looking at what other people who have the Schubert recording in their libraries are listening to, or what’s in their libraries, similar to the way the Genius feature works. Providing better classical recommendations would require additional metadata for classical recordings, beyond just the “classical” genre. There would need to be metadata for eras (Baroque, Romantic, etc.), ensemble sizes (trios, quartets, orchestras, etc.), and styles.

The classical market is too small for the big streaming services to provide this sort of recommendation, and other players, such as Idagio and Primephonic, are entering the field in an attempt to do so. This is probably not something that can be done by algorithm, in part because of the absence of extended metadata specific to classical music.

To be fair, a bit of browsing on Apple Music allows me to find plenty of classical music, but I really would like the kind of recommendation that pushes me in the right direction, especially for composers that I don’t know well. I’m not that interested in paying for another streaming service, because that sort of fragmentation with music is just an annoyance. But I wish the big streaming services – Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon – would take classical music seriously.

Amazon Launches Amazon Music HD (and Lies a Lot)

Amazon today announced Amazon Music HD, an extension of their paid music streaming service offering 50+ million tracks in lossless FLAC format, and “millions” of tracks in high-resolution formats. (It’s also available from Amazon UK.)

Amazon, the music streaming service that is probably not used by that many serious music fans, hopes that this can get them to be a serious player in this market. But I’d expect that many if not most people who use Amazon to stream music probably use an Alexa device, in most cases devices where lossless audio won’t sound better than the MP3s that they serve.

Amazon has used all the audiophile tropes to try to sell their service, and this graphic sums them up:

Amazon music hd

First comes the stair-step graphics attempting to suggest that higher sample rates are better. Amazon has shamelessly ripped this off from Qobuz, who has been using this graphic for more than two years.

Qobuz lies

They then discuss bit rates. MP3 is “up to 320 kbps,” or what most people can hear correctly. But for the “high definition” audio – lossless, or CD quality – they say “up to 850 kpbs.” Anyone who understands lossless compression knows that the bit rate of a lossless file depends on the density and volume of the music, and higher bit rates are not better. In fact, it’s not uncommon for lossless files to have bit rates above 1,000 kbps, such as with this Clash album:

Clash bit rates

Or even well below 320 kbps, as with this album of piano works by John Cage:

Cage bit rate

And for “ultra HD,” or what is more commonly known as high resolution, saying “up to 3750 kbps — more than 10X the bitrate of standard streaming services” is disingenuous at best. If you have magical bats’ ears, you might hear the difference, but whether the bit rate is 3750 kbps or half that makes little difference if you don’t have high-end audio equipment, and especially if the music isn’t mastered well.

“So,” you are thinking, “Isn’t it time for Apple to offer something similar?” I doubt it. While providing lossless streams would fit well with the niche the company is trying to create for the HomePod (a mono device, mind you, where lossless or high-res music won’t provide a full stereo experience), most people who listen to music don’t care, and it is not very useful for mobile devices. I’m sure that one day Apple will offer a lossless plan for Apple Music, but I can’t see it as a priority.

In any case, if Apple does offer lossless streaming one day, I hope they won’t use the same type of deceptive language that Amazon is using.

My Personal Apple Music Radio Station Is Broken

Update: I heard from Apple that this was caused by a bug on their servers, and it has been resolved.


One of my favorite ways to listen to music is my personal Apple Music radio station. Apple added this feature, which it initially called “Personal DJ,” about two years ago. (See this article.)

To create it, just ask Siri, on any device, to “Play some music.” A new station is created using whatever image you have attached to your Apple Music profile (if any). (Read this article to learn how to set up an Apple Music profile.)

Personal radio station

I often go back to this station because it generally plays a good cross section of my music. It includes purchases, music I’ve added to my iCloud Music Library, music that I’ve loved, and other music that I’ve played recently or a lot. So if I’m in the car, and I don’t want to spend time deciding what to listen to, I put this on, and skip what I don’t want to hear, but am never really disappointed.

But since yesterday, it’s been broken. It only plays two songs: I Must Have That Man, by Adelaide Hall, and Bengali Blue, by Bobo Stenson and Lennart Åberg. Until just a few minutes ago, when I was about to start writing this article, it only played the first song, and since then, a second song has been added. Sometimes the first song only plays a second or two then stops; sometimes it plays, then the second song plays, then the first one comes back again for a few seconds. And this has happened to other people; I found a number of people posting on Apple’s forums, and on Reddit, who had similar issues: sometimes with a single song, sometimes with two or three.

Feel free to try it out: you can share links to your personal Apple Music Radio station.

But I don’t know how this can be fixed. Some algorithm has gone all William Gibson, and the only way to correct this would be for someone with the keys to the kingdom to reset something in the Apple Music database. It’s unlikely that any first- or second-level Apple Care technician would be able to do that. So I can’t use this personal radio station any more, unless somehow the algorithm figures out that there’s an issue.

Because you cannot delete Apple Music radio stations. Not this one, not any that you create based on songs, albums, artists, or genres. This has long been an annoying, but in most cases, you just shrug it off and move on. They pile up in your Recently Played list, but you can ignore them, because you can just create others with other songs, artists, or genres. But this radio station is special.

If I could delete it, then I could recreate it, and that might fix the logjam – or, the broken record – and it would work as it should again. So, for now, I will no longer have one of the best features of Apple Music at my disposal. This makes me sad.

Why Is It So Difficult to Listen to Audiobooks on the Apple Watch?

I listen to audiobooks often, and sometimes I would like to be able to listen to them on my Apple Watch, via AirPods, rather than have to have my iPhone with me when I go walking. Audible’s app for the Apple Watch is pathetically bad; not only is it nearly impossible to sync audiobooks to the device (I discuss that in this article), but if do you manage to do so, it doesn’t correctly sync its position, so if you go back to another device to listen, you lose your place. (See this Reddit thread.)

In watchOS 6, which will be released on September 19, and for which the golden master (the final version released to developers) is now available, there is a new Audiobooks app. But this app can only play audiobooks you’ve purchased from Apple. Even if you sync audiobooks from Audible or audiobooks you may have ripped from CDs, you cannot sync them to the Apple Watch.

I would think that most regular audiobook listeners are Audible subscribers, since their subscription model makes books much cheaper than what Apple charges. Since you can sync them to the Books app on the iPhone, it’s odd that you cannot put them on the Apple Watch. This might have something to do with the different DRM that is used for Audible content, but if Apple can play these books in their app on iOS, it shouldn’t be any different on watchOS. It’s worth noting that the Audible app on iOS can see and play books in the Books app, if they are from Audible.

The new Audiobooks app says it syncs up to five hours of a book to the Apple Watch, which is problematic. I understand that most people won’t be listening to, say, an eight-hour audiobook on their watch, but some might want to, such as if they’re on a long flight. Since the new Apple Watch contains 32 GB storage, it should be able to hold more than this. (The Series 4 which I have currently has 16 GB.)

Audiobooks are just audio content, and should be easy enough to sync to the Apple Watch. Apple has had a long relationship with Audible; not only is the company the only one – other than Apple – whose DRM-protected content is playable in iTunes, but Audible also provides Apple with the audiobooks that the latter company sells. Granted, Apple wants people to buy audiobooks from them rather than Audible, if possible, but preventing people from listening to audiobooks they haven’t purchased from Apple seems unfair.

The Next Track, Episode #157 – Fake Fur-Covered Streams: Everything About CD Packaging

Andy Doe joins us to discuss CD packaging. The types of packages used, such as jewel cases and digipacks, and the marketing behind those Big Classical Box Sets.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The Next Track, Episode #156 – 10 Ideas About the Future of the Music Business

We discuss the future of the music business, and come up with at last 10 ideas about how things will change in the next 10 years. Because 10 is a good number.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The Next Track, Episode #155 – Running a Small Record Label: Another Timbre

We welcome Simon Reynell, who runs Another Timbre, a one-man record label that releases experimental and contemporary music. Simon tells us how he started the label, and what it’s like to run a record label in a niche of this kind.

Check out other episodes at The Next Track website, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, or Google Play, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The Next Track, Episode #154 – Remembering the Walkman and Cassettes

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxThe Sony Walkman was introduced 40 years ago. When it first came out, it was the biggest change in musical listening since the record player. It ushered in an era of personal listening, and, with the popularity of cassette tapes, changed the music industry.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #154 – Remembering the Walkman and Cassettes.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The Next Track, Episode #153 – John Lysaker on Brian Eno’s Music for Airports

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxPhilosopher John Lysaker joins us to discuss his recent book about Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. We talk about the idea of ambient music, and how Music for Airports defined a genre.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #153 – John Lysaker on Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.