The Truth about Metadata: The Classical Problem Part 1

The Classical Problem: No. 1

Getting metadata right presents a huge challenge for classical music because of its unique complexity. While awareness about the problems has been much increased in recent years, understanding what the problem is and where it comes from is a subject that could do with more discussion. Will Langstone sheds a little light on the issues over the next few days.

Will Langstone is the Product Developer at Quantone, a London based metadata company specialising in in-depth factual metadata.

#1: Distinguishing between composer and performers

Understanding the difference between composers and performers is such an elementary part of appreciating classical music that it is almost never talked about. This is of course partly down to the fact that the silent majority of composers have long since composed their last: one thinks of Mozart and Haydn and the elegant imagery of the stately late 18th century europe is conjured instantly. Mention Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the same breath and the vision melts into the aesthetics of the earnestly kitsch urban intelligentsia of Soviet Russia. To those even remotely familiar with classical music the name of a composer or the sound of their works evokes a strong cultural context which helps place them in approximation to their location in the 600 or so years of what we broadly call the classical tradition.

With performers on the other hand, our cognition is tied to the characteristic techniques, interpretive tendencies and perhaps technological medium through which we experience their performances in the case of recorded music. Not only do we look to get a very different value from paying attention to performances, spanning little more than 100 years, our reference points for performers are incomparable to those of composers. Now, imagine trying to have a conversation about music with someone who couldn't conceive the difference. Does it sound familiar?

Of course! This is the challenge facing users of most digital services who want to find classical music. If you're lucky, you know the exact recording you're looking for, there is only one main artist, and the artist field doesn't mention composer. Otherwise, well, you know what happens...

There is really only one solution to the problem: a dedicated field for both the performing artist(s) and the composer(s). Attempts to solve the problem by putting the composer in the title (usually at the beginning) are a visual fix, useful for identifying the right track in a line-up, but it's only superficial. From a data point of view, this is of minimal value for search.

Luckily, this problem is by now pretty much out there. While there are no signs that platforms not focused on classical are unlikely to implement a composer field any time soon, there are a wealth of classically-focused alternatives that do. Of course, ensuring the data is in the right place all the time is no small challenge, especially when most major services take no interest. However, with a bit of careful data curation, this can generally be overcome. This relatively small step makes such a difference to the classical experience that for those that care, implementing it is really a no-brainer. Not only does it make basic searching much more user friendly, it provides solid ground for those uninitiated in classical music to start exploring.

article submitted by:Will Langstone, Quantone