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.

8 thoughts on “Why Can’t Music Streaming Services Give Good Recommendations for Classical Music?

  1. I so agree. Classical music is left on the margins of technology, as was ever thus. Spotify has introduced me to some gems, but it’s a pretty random selection within the broad field of Classical.

  2. Whoever compiles their recommendations does not understand the listening audience in this genre. I suppose we who listen to Schubert. Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven should at least be satisfied that the recommendations they do provide should suffice. But leaving this genre to algorithms is too mechanical an exercise. If only they had someone—remember Karl Haas?—do this.

  3. And Amazon’s recommendation algorithms for non-mainstream books are just as bad. Amazon knows what I buy, but constantly makes recommendations that have no affinity with previous purchases whatsoever.

  4. Thanks for the mention of Idagio, which I hadn’t heard of before. I’ve taken it for a ride and am impressed. Two negatives only: not satisfied with making a recommendation, they go ahead and play it without asking; and they don’t include booklets (which is unfortunate, especially in the case of less familiar composers where some background information would be welcome).

    Those points aside, Idagio is the first alternation which could tempt me to part company with Qobuz, my long-term favourite streaming/download service. I especially admire the clean, minimalistic look of their apps, both desktop and mobile. That said, Qobuz don’t really go in for the whole ‘recommended for you’ business at all, which is more to my taste.

  5. Roon Radio seems to make a reasonable fist of finding more tracks like the one you have been listening to previously. But it can be weird sometimes. And like so much audio software, Roon does not provide the long track names needed for classical music naming conventions.

    • But I don’t want to hear “tracks” when I listen to classical music; I want to hear complete works.

      I had thought that Roon was better than that regarding metadata; I thought that was one of their strengths.

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