Getting the Most out of Classical Music with iTunes and the iPod

[Update, September 2006. Apple introduced gapless playback to iTunes 7 and to the latest iPods, making the questions of joining tracks, as explained below, moot in many cases. See this article for an explanation of gapless playback.

However, if you have an older iPod (older than the iPod video or nano), you won’t benefit from this feature. In addition, you may still want to join tracks to be able to play music at random, playing entire works, rather than disparate movements. So much of this article remains valid today.]

While Apple is aggressively marketing its iPod to the younger generation, through its ads and commercials featuring black silhouettes dancing to hip-hop and rock music, the iPod is also a valuable device for listening to classical music. However, to get the most out of this type of music, you need to reconsider the way you rip your CDs.

I’ve got eclectic musical tastes. My iPod contains music by the Grateful Dead, The Durutti Column, The Clash, Brian Eno, moe. and Widespread Panic, as well as Bach, Haydn, Handel and Schubert. I’ve long explored all types of music, and the capacity of my iPod lets me carry a diverse selection of tunes with me.

For rock and pop music, the iPod (and iTunes; all my explanations here apply to both) is easy to use: insert a CD in your computer, rip the music, then create a playlist (or just listen to your songs in random order). But for classical music, and to a lesser extent jazz, you need a different approach. There are constraints in most classical music that keep you from ripping your CDs in the same way.In operas, for example, there are often no pauses between recitatives and arias, or between orchestral movements and arias. If you rip your music as individual tracks, you’ll get that pause. You can eliminate it in iTunes, if you go to the Effects preferences and set Crossfade Playback to 0 seconds. But the iPod can’t play tracks without an audible pause. Ideally, when ripping operas, you should convert each disc into a single track. To do this, insert a CD into your computer, then select all the tracks on that CD and select Advanced > Join CD Tracks. This gives you a single track of the entire disc, and you won’t have any inopportune pauses.

However, this means that you won’t be able to see the names of individual tracks in your operas. It’s a trade-off, but if you listen to music on the go, you probably won’t be bothered. (You can, however, always check the elapsed time of the track to know where you are.) There is another advantage to this approach: your operas will only be 3 or 4 tracks, instead of hundreds, making it easier to browse music and organize your tunes.

But when you rip classical music you’re confronted with another problem: that of correctly identifying the composer, artist and album. iTunes uses the Gracenote CDDB (CD database) which records track and album information for hundreds of thousands of CDs. A lot of classical discs are included in this database, but I’ve found many that are either missing or incorrect. In addition, when you rip music with iTunes, it organizes your music by artist; in the case of classical music, this is usually the performer. I’ve seen some operas where a different artist is listed for each disc: this is usually just a variant of the actual orchestra and conductor, but it makes organizing the resulting music on your hard disk a bit of a hassle.

The solution to this is to change the information before ripping your disks. Again, select all the tracks, press Command+I (or Ctrl+I on a PC), and fill in the fields. You should fill in the Composer field, since this is generally blank. Set whatever name you want for the album (again, the CDDB information is often incorrect here), then do the same for the artist. You’ll find it easier to browse for music when the information you’ll want to look for is already attached to your music.

Smart Playlists and Classical Music

Another way the iPod and iTunes make classical listening more interesting is by setting up smart playlists that play back music in random order. At first glance, this may seem to be a heresy – after all, classical music is not meant to be listened to with the shuffle button pressed on your CD player. But there is a way of leveraging this function to enhance your listening.

Let me give you a concrete example; two, in fact. I have lots of box sets of classical music, some of which contain dozens of discs. There are two in particular that I ripped with iTunes to listen to on my iPod: the first is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s memorable recordings of Schubert lieder; the second is a set of Haydn symphonies by Adam Fischer and his Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra. The Schubert set is 21 CDs (though I only ripped 18 of them, since the other three contain song cycles meant to be listened to in order), and the Haydn set is 33 CDs. (For information, the Schubert takes up about 1.5 GB and the Haydn 2.4 GB, ripped at 160 bps AAC.)

For the Schubert, setting up a smart playlist was simple: I have it set to play 50 random songs that I haven’t listened to in the last three months, guaranteeing that whenever I want to listen to some of these lieder I’ll get a playlist of two hours or more of songs I haven’t heard recently. I don’t listen to this music every day, and it takes a few months to get through the more than 400 songs, or over 21 hours of music. With this smart playlist, way I don’t always hear the same songs, which I might if I were to listen to the CDs themselves, and I hear them in random order, increasing the variety of the music.

For the Haydn symphonies, it took a bit more work. I joined the tracks of each individual symphony (selecting the tracks and selecting Join CD Tracks for each symphony before ripping the CDs), and my smart playlist is set to play 4 symphonies among the least recently played. I won’t hear the same symphony for a while, unless I listen to this playlist over and over for more than 36 hours. As with operas, you won’t be able to select individual movements, but if the CDDB information is correct, you’ll see the names of the movements in the joined track name.

This flexibility, using smart playlists, makes it much easier to listen to large sets of classical music, and allows me to discover a lot more music than I normally would if I were to listen to each CD one after another. It also offers more interesting juxtapositions than the numerical order of the Hadyn symphonies, or the chronological order of the Schubert lieder.

For some types of music it can be a bit more complicated to set up playlists correctly, since there may be tracks that are meant to be listened to in pairs. I have a set of keyboard music of William Byrd, performed by Davitt Moroney, and some of the pieces are paired. This requires that you check the liner notes before ripping, and join any such pairs together to listen to the music the way it was intended.

So, with the correct approach, the iPod is a great device for listening to classical music, even if you don’t use it on the go. Just rip all the CDs you want, create playlists, and plug it into your stereo at home. (Or, of course, if your computer is close to your stereo, you can use iTunes to do the same thing.) You’ll be able to listen to all your operas, or your biggest box sets, with greater flexibility by mastering smart playlists.

For more on the subject, read these two articles I wrote for Playlist Magazine: Classical Music on the iPod and iTunes and Tagging Classical Music.

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