Listening to classical music on Apple Music

Classical music fans like me are living in a golden age. More recordings are available than ever, and it’s much easier to buy CDs and downloads than in the past. Classical recordings are extremely affordable on CD: you can buy big box sets of music by your favorite composers or performers for a buck or two per disk. And, with streaming services, you have access to an immense library of music that you can listen to at any time.

I recently made some suggestions about how you can manage a classical music library in iTunes. Apple Music, however, can be even more of a challenge for listening to classical music. This isn’t surprising; the music streaming model is designed around the “song” rather than multi-movement works, such as symphonies and sonatas. Here are a few tips to help you listen to classical music more efficiently.

Just as with the iTunes Store, searching is the key to using Apple Music. If you’re looking for the latest pop hit or rock album, this is generally easy: you type in the artist’s name, and the name of a song or album, and iTunes finds it. With classical music, this is much more difficult. Not only do you have multiple artists—on an opera recording, for example, you have an orchestra, a conductor, a choir, and several soloists—but you often have to deal with names of works that are not unique. Many composers wrote a 1st symphony, or a piano sonata in G major.

The first thing you should consider when searching for something is whether to use a work’s name in English, or in its original language (if its title is not in English). For example, when searching for Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, I only found a few hits. But when I searched for its original name in German, there were many more results.

Even for an opera such as Verdi’s Otello, you find more recordings searching for that title, rather than the English version, Othello.

When searching for works that do not have unique names, such as those of an opera, search for a combination of the composer and the work name, and, if you know it, use the catalog number (BWV, K, etc.) or opus number. And if you are looking for a specific performer’s recording, add their name, too. However, in works with many performers, you may find that not all of the artists are listed.

One problem with prolific performers is that Apple Music does not list all their albums. There is a list of Top Albums, but in order to find the rest of an artist’s discography, you will have to search elsewhere. It can be useful to search in the iTunes Store first, and then, after you have found an album, search for it in Apple Music. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to navigate from an album in the iTunes Store to the same album in Apple Music, no you’ll often have to search twice.

One of Apple Music’s unique selling points is “human-curated” playlists. While this works well for pop, rock, and even jazz, it’s not suited for classical music. You can find these playlists by going to the New section of Apple Music, scrolling down, and clicking Apple Editors Playlists. Click the Classical button to see the types of playlists available.

Some of the classical playlists offer introductions to performers or composers; these are a good way to hear some different types of music that you can later search for. But others aren’t very useful. With titles such as Classical Music for Driving, or Classical Music for Elevators, they don’t inspire much “discovery.”

Unfortunately, the way Apple Music displays playlists is problematic. Many of them don’t display the names of composers, and those that do put the composer after the often very long name of the artist. (And sometimes the artist information is spotty at best.) So if you do hear some music you like, click the More button then Go to Album to see the composer and performer(s).

It’s one thing to not see the names of performers or composers and playlists, but this problem also exists on album pages. You often see no composers, or truncated lists of artists. Here’s one example:

If you’re on an iOS device, you can tap the More button (...) to go to the iTunes Store, but curiously, if you’re in iTunes, there’s no such option. This is a shame; I really don’t want to listen to an album of recordings and guess who the composers are. I hope Apple can provide better metadata in Apple Music in the future; after all, they have this metadata in the iTunes Store.

There’s lots of great classical music on Apple Music, but the way the service is set up is not ideal for this type of music. Composer and artist names are essential, and you may need to work hard to find what you want, or to find who’s playing the music you hear.


Kirk McElhearn

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