How I Organize Classical Music in iTunes

[Updated October 2015: I now use the Grouping field for a song's subgenre, see below. I also added some illustrations.]


Classical music in iTunes is a disaster. The track and album information that is downloaded with your album is an inconsistent nightmare, and leaves one with few options for creating a variety of rich playlists—which is almost exclusively how I listen to my music.

To remedy this, I have a system which overhauls the existing track and album data, and appends those data with rich metadata so that I can create a variety of smart playlists. Here is my recipe.

Tidy Track Data and Add Metadata

  1. Fix Album Composer

    Unlike many people, I keep the composer of the work in the Composer field (many people moved it to the Artist field to accommodate limitations of the original iPod). I make sure to choose one consistent way to spell the composer's name (Dvořák or Dvorak? you decide and stick with one), then I change it to a [last name], [first name] format. And, I don't include the dates of birth and death, we have Wikipedia for that. Once you have a composer in your library, subsequent entries will autocomplete.

  2. Add composer to sort fields

    I put the composer, in the same [last name], [first name] format, in the Sort Artist and Sort Album Artist fields. This bunches the works of one composer together, but will not break up multi-composer albums. If you identify your albums by the artist more than the composer, don't do this step.

  3. Fix Album Artist

    There are two fields here: Artist and Album Artist which, as you might imagine, represent each track and the entire album, respectively.

    For the Artist field, I tend to put the conductor and orchestra first, when applicable, and follow it with any highlighted artists along with their reason for being highlighted. Each artist is separated by a semicolon. So, for example:

    • Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic
    • Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony; Sidney Harth, Violin
    • Alfred Brendel, Piano
    • Stanislaw Wislocki, Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra; Sviatoslav Richter, Piano
    • Charles Münch, Boston Symphony Orchestra; Jascha Heifetz, Violin

    For the Album Artist, I typically put the most important artist first, without any instruments. If the album is known for the pianist, then he or she will go first. If the album is best known for the conductor, then he will appear first (why are there no female conductors?). I still join the conductor and his orchestra with a comma, and separate other artists with a semicolon. For example:

    • Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic
    • Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony; Sidney Harth (the piece is better known for Reiner's work)
    • Alfred Brendel
    • Sviatoslav Richter; Stanislaw Wislocki, Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra
    • Jascha Heifetz; Charles Münch, Boston Symphony Orchestra

    Now, I know what you're asking, what about those albums that have different artists for different pieces on the album. Well, I personally hate when albums have an Album Artist of Various Artists, but sometimes it is unavoidable, particularly on compilation albums. However, if there are only two different artists, I will join them together in the Album Artist field, thereby rescuing it from the various artists section. The alternative is to break up multi-artist albums so that they appear as different albums. This is feasible for albums with two different artists, but it breaks down for an album for 10 different artists. So, I vote to keep the original album together by combining artists into one Album Artist when I can.

  4. Fix the Grouping field

    The Grouping field was designed to hold the name of the opus that may span multiple songs. For example, all the movements of a symphony would be tagged with the name of the opus. Then, using the iTunes Column Browser, you can see a list of each work by a particular composer. For me, this was more useful when the Column Browser was an actual column. Now, it is horizontal at the top if the window, which I find utterly useless. So, I now store the subgenre of each song in this field.

    In the Classical genre, musical periods act as subgenres, so my Grouping field contains Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, or Contemporary.

    If you don't want to put the subgenre in the Grouping field, but want to use it according to its original intention, then follow these instructions. I use a format that's similar to the track name, but I remove a few items and rearrange the order a bit. I remove the composer and any individual movement information. Then, I try to begin the piece with the musical form, like Symphony, Concerto, Sonata, etc. which necessitates moving the instrument (if present) to the end kicked off by a "for." Some corresponding examples:

    • Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F Major, BWV 1047
    • Sonata #5 in C Minor for Piano, Op. 10/1
    • Symphony #36 in C Major, K. 425 'Linz'
    • Iberia Suite
    • Akhnaten
    • Don Giovanni, K. 527
    • Quartet #14 in D Minor for Strings, D. 810 'Death and the Maiden'
    • Concerto #2 in C Minor for Piano, Op. 18

    Again, the Brandenburg Concerto is known more by that name, so it breaks the rule.

  5. Add Metadata

    The Comments field can take a format-free string of characters, so I populate this field with an assortment of metadata that describe the piece. These include, in this order:

    1. The Musical Form — Symphony, Sonata, Concerto, Prelude, Rhapsody, Tone Poem, Fugue, etc. If you don't know the form, then put Form?
    2. The Ensemble — Solo, Duet, Trio, Quartet, Quintet, up to Nonet, and Orchestra.
    3. Highlighted Instruments — Violin for a violin concerto, Strings for a string quartet, or Winds for Mozart's Serenade #10 for Wind Instruments. You get the idea. Instruments can either be listed as a broad category, like Keyboard, Strings, Winds, Voice, or they can be listed individually, like Harpsichord, Cello, Oboe, etc.
    4. The Album Date — if you feel the need, the original date that appears on the album. Often the release date, which I include as Rel2007, or the recording date, which I write as Rec1965. I don't pursue these dates, I only copy the date from the Year field here, just to have a record of when the album was released.
    5. Date Uncertainty — if you don't know the date of the composition, which, as you'll see next, I put in the Year field, I place a Date? at the end of the Comments field.
  6. Fix the Year

    I like putting the year the work was composed in the Year field. This is a nice way to put pieces in context with one another, and composers in historical context. This is why I copy the date to the Comments field, as described in 4e above.

  7. Fix the track Name field

    Typically, the track names, populated by the Gracenote database, are inconsistent not only across albums but even, at times, within albums. I fix all of this by using a standard field format, which makes the tracks more readable and easier to sort by. For most works, I use a format like this:

    [composer]: [work] in [key], [Op. #]/[number] '[known by name]' - #. [movement name]

    For example:

    • Bach: Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F Major, BWV 1047 - 3. Allegro Assai
    • Beethoven: Piano Sonata #5 in C Minor, Op. 10/1 - 1. Allegro molto e con brio
    • Mozart: Symphony #36 in C Major, K. 425 'Linz' - 3. Menuetto
    • Albéniz: Iberia Suite, Book III - 1. El Albaicin
    • Chopin: Mazurka #45 in G Minor, Op. 67/2 - Cantabile
    • R. Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
    • Glass: Akhnaten, Act I: Year 1 of Akhenaten's Reign in Thebes, Scene 3 - The Window of Appearances
    • Mozart: Don Giovanni, Act II, Scene 15 - Finale: Don Giovanni, A Cenar Teco

    Strictly speaking, I should have listed the Brandenburg Concerto as Bach: Concerto #2 in F Major for Orchestra, BWV 1047 'Brandenburg' - ..., but some rules are meant to be broken when it makes sense to do so.

    Some additional guidelines:

    • For Opera and other larger works, I use roman numerals for Acts or Books, like the examples above.
    • I never use "No." for number, I use the more economical "#" instead.
    • Everything begins with caps except the "in"s and "for"s, etc.
    • I always use a hyphen between sharp and flat notes, in the format: [note]-[Sharp | Flat] [Major | Minor]. For example B-Flat Minor.
    • I always put a Major or Minor in the work (Major is often left out).
    • I like to use numbers for the movements, instead of the traditional Roman numerals. Numbers are easier to read.
    • Most tracks are listed with the primary instrument first, but others warrant the order reversed. For example:
      • Schubert: String Quartet #14 in D Minor, D. 810 'Death and the Maiden' - 2. Andante con Moto
      • Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto #2 in C Minor, Op. 18 - 1. Moderato
      • Mozart: Serenade #10 in B-Flat Major for 13 Wind Instruments, K. 361 'Gran Partita' - 2. Menuetto
      • Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116 - 2. Giuoco Delle Coppie: Allegretto Scherzando
  8. Rate Your Tracks

    By giving your tracks a rating, particularly for those tracks you like, you will separate the wheat from the chaff. Spend the extra time to at least rate those tracks that are neutral (3-star), tracks that you like (4-star), and tracks that you love (5-star).

Creating Smart Playlists

Once you have all the metadata in place, you can then begin to create a multitude of smart playlists that cull these data. Here is how I organize my Classical playlists.

First, I make a playlist for each main genre in my library, so make one called Classical. It will be composed of every track that has a Genre of Classical, but will also have tracks where "Classical" appears in the comments of the track. I do this for albums that lie outside the Genre but are composed of classical music (like the Amadeus soundtrack). I use this technique—putting the genre in the comments field—if I want to have an album in more than one genre. This is mostly useful in the Soundtrack category.

Next, I make a playlist folder called Classical, then put the following inside it.

Using my Classical genre playlist as the root for all other playlists, and at the top level inside the Classical folder, I put the subgenre, or musical period lists. These are my go-to lists, so I like them to be easily accessible, but you can put whatever you like here. I number them so they are in chronological order. These are smart playlists that sample the Classical genre list and Grouping field.

iTunes Classical Playlists

iTunes Classical Playlists

iTunes Classical Playlists

Next, I have folders for each of the following:

  • Composers

    These can be smart lists to pull one composer's work out, or, what I find more enjoyable are dumb playlists populated with one composer's work, one piece at a time. Say you have Bach's Trio sonatas, Cello Suites, Brandenburg Concertos, and his Violin Concertos. Make a normal playlist called Bach Mix which takes one piece from the Trio Sonatas, then one from the Cello Suite, then a Brandenburg Concerto, then a Violin Concerto. Repeat the process until you exhaust the album's tracks and you have a nice little mix.

    iTunes Classical Playlists

  • Ensemble

    Create a smart playlist that culls data from the Comments field (4b above). You can have one list for Solo, one for Duet, Trio, Quartet, etc., up to Orchestra. (Yes, I know Solo does not an ensemble make, but it makes sense in this context.)

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

  • Forms

    Smart playlists for the musical forms present in your library (4a above). Concerto, Symphony, Symphonic Poem, Opera, Fugue, Prelude, Ballet, Scherzo, Waltz, etc. I always reference my Classical genre playlist, then filter for the appropriate word in the Comments field.

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

  • Instruments

    You can make smart playlists for various instruments (Violin, Piano, Cello, etc.). I make playlists for broad classes: Strings, Winds, Voice, and Keyboard. Then, I can sample from those playlists to make a Keyboards: Piano list, or a Strings: Viola list, or a Strings: Guitar list, or a Winds: Oboe list, for example.

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

  • Tempo

    Using the basic tempo markings, you can sort your collection by tempo. This relies on the tempo appearing in the track name, which for many pre-20th century pieces is a given. For more modern pieces, tempo indicators may not be present. You can make smart playlists for Adagio, Allegro, Vivace, and Presto, to name a few, then listen to tracks with a slower tempo, or lively, vivacious tracks. I also make a Fast, Moderate, and Slow playlists that split the list of tempos into three sections. Then, I can just have all the slow tracks in one list to sample from.

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

  • Favorites

    Using the ratings and the play count, you can construct smart playlists that bring out the best of your collection. You can have compound lists that use, say, the Romantic playlist and only skim off the 5-star-rated tracks, giving you the best of the Romantic period. You can do the same for a particular composer, for an ensemble, an instrument, a musical form, or a tempo (defined next). I use special characters for the 5-star playlists and the 4- plus 5-star playlists. Five-star playlists get a filled-in heart symbol, while 4- plus 5-star lists get a hollow heart symbol. I use a "play" triangular symbol for a playlist sorted by the number of plays. Typically, the number of tracks determine whether I'll use a 5-star-only list, or a 4- plus 5-star list. Use Edit > Special Characters to choose a symbol you like.

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

  • Mixed Albums

    Beyond this, any combination of these is feasible. If you want solo string pieces, you can make that list. If you want all keyboard sonatas, you can make that too. Say you want all C Major works, or all C Major, 5-star, string works—all easy to make with smart playlists. You can easily find all slow orchestral tracks, or all duet sonatas, duo piano, or solo strings. The possibilities are endless.

    iTunes Classical Playlists

    iTunes Classical Playlists

With this recipe, I've shown you how I harness the power of data to make super-smart playlists. But, In the end, this system needs to serve your needs and reflect how you listen to your music. So, feel free to alter and adjust to suit your music-listening habits. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.