Why can’t more music apps be like Apple Music Classical?


In 2023, it’s hard to love classical music. Not because of the music itself – it’s just hard to find. Searching for George Gershwin returns his own performances as well as music he has composed and performed by other artists. The problem is that classical music metadata doesn’t just depend on the typical things like artist, genre, song title or album title. There are soloists to consider, and composers and conductors, and pieces performed by an orchestra and a choir. Apple Music Classical, based on the Primephonic app Apple bought in 2021, addresses the metadata issue and makes me wonder why there aren’t more apps this rich in stuff.

I didn’t realize how little classical music was running on my phone until I downloaded Apple Music Classic. I used to love classical music, collecting LPs and bouncing between performances, marveling at the subtle changes in music each conductor and musician created. Before streaming became the dominant form of music playback, I had entire playlists of composers I liked, with the metadata for each music file carefully populated. MP3 files actually have many places for metadataand it was useful to know which pianist took the solo in which recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

But the nuance was lost when streaming became the dominant form of music playback. Streaming has to be good enough to reach as many people as possible, and it takes resources to get as meticulous as I would with my own curated list of pieces.

Turn your attention to the suggested albums. Particularly the last two.

Even now, searching that same concert in the vanilla Apple Music app only gives me two suggested performances before suggesting organ and ukulele covers. That’s not what I want, and I love that, in Apple Music Classical I can (and have) spent a few hours listening to dozens of performances of Piano Concerto No. 2. Some play it with a gloom of a funeral dirge, others with a breathtaking speed reminiscent of something composed by Franz Liszt, and I can switch quickly and easily between each version. There is even a brief description of the concerto explaining the piece’s historical context and difficulty.

There’s a genuine affection for the music in Apple Music Classical. Quite a few pieces that I would consider fairly important get the same treatment as Rachmaninoff’s work, with dozens of renditions and a neat little explanation. But there are also just a lot of ways to find the music. I can search by composer if I feel like it’s a Ralph Vaughan Williams morning or by artist if I feel like more Sviatoslav Richter in my life. I can also search by instrument, orchestra, ensemble, conductor or soloist, or even choir.

I was particularly impressed with the range of choral music, which felt more robust, or at least easier to find, than on other music apps. I searched for years for a specific arrangement of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” that I heard in college and finally found it on Music Classical (it’s from Bairstow: Great Cathedral Anthems Vol. 1, and it’s almost embarrassingly emotional – I love it). I was also able to listen to just the recording of a specific choir that I have had a fondness for for years.

Quite a few works let you get details about the play itself, browse through numerous performances, and sort by popularity, name, release date, or duration. It’s also possible to get related works that, in this case, I had never heard before, but sounded related.

Music Classical is not always perfect. I was surprised that “Gliding Dance of the Maidens” from the Polovtsian Dances in Prince Igor was not included in the popular works of Alexander Borodin, as it is the basis for the famous song “Stranger in Paradise” from the 1953 musical Kismet. But that could also be me.

All this is to say, I’m in love with Apple Music Classical, and I keep wondering why the regular app isn’t more like it. While classical music certainly needs a wide range of metadata, I like to think most other music does too. People like to listen to the work of a single producer, and if they search for Stephen Sondheim they should be able to see all the musicals he has composed as neatly as I can see all the works of Antonín Dvořák in Music Classical.

I can see why the main app doesn’t offer the same kind of nuance in searching and browsing. It covers many different genres of music with many different listener expectations, and it should do a good enough job for all of them, while Music Classical does a great job for just one. But I already have colleagues wondering where the Jazz version of this app is, and I don’t think they will be the only ones. Right now, music streaming apps are trying to differentiate themselves from each other to make our dollars. Apple forces spatial audio on us, and Spotify tries to get us to give podcasts, and YouTube Music quickly gives us a video and reminds us of its origins in the main app. But Music Classical remembers that many of us are giant nerds, and we just want to go down the rabbit hole with our favorites.