By Dan Moren
March 28, 2023 6:40 AM PT
First Look: Apple Classical is tuned for the genre, but hits a few false notes
It may not have made Apple’s self-imposed 2022 deadline, but three months into 2023, the new Apple Classical app is finally taking its bow.
The result of Apple’s acquisition of Primephonic back in August 2021, Apple Classical is a bit of a strange beast. It’s best thought of as a different window through which you can view Apple Music, as from what I can tell all the tracks here are also available in the standard Apple Music library. And, indeed, it’s part and parcel of an Apple Music subscription: no extra cost, just another app.
So why an entirely separate program? Apple Classical is clearly intended to provide a better way to browse, find, and listen to classical (and adjacent) music. That’s a welcome addition for many classical music fans, who have long complained about how Apple Music (and its predecessor, iTunes) have handled—or failed to handle1—the genre.
At the root of the issue is that classical music has its own peculiarities that diverge from contemporary music: at the most base level, consider that most classical music isn’t performed by the artist who wrote it, given that in many cases they were long dead before the advent of recording technology. Thus listeners may want to look for performances by certain artists…but that’s complicated too, given that many are performed by orchestras, which might also mean looking for a specific conductor. That’s not even including other oddities, like the arcane cataloguing system of opus numbers.
Having grown up in a household with a classical music aficionado, I was steeped in the genre: Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Prokofiev—all of these were in regular rotation in my home. Even though I didn’t have the same passion for classical music as my father, I know the importance of finding precisely the work you want to listen to. Anybody who’s ever asked their HomePod to “play Beethoven” knows that you often end up with a weird selection that’s not really what you wanted, and trying to get more specific is often a fool’s errand. The question is whether Apple Classical solves this problem, or merely compounds it.
At first glance, Apple Classical largely seems to ape the Apple Music interface; at the bottom are four tabs: Listen Now, Browse, Library, and Search. But delve into a couple of these, and you’ll start seeing the differences.
I particularly appreciate the refinement Apple has done to the Library section. While it’s shared with Apple Music (you’ll see albums already in your Apple Music library that are also available in Apple Classical), there are also new sections for Recordings and Works, and refined sections for Artists and Composers. In all of those cases, Apple has implemented a Favorites system, where you can choose to save specific items, rather than simply providing an exhaustive catalogue of every single artist or recording you have in your collection. That’s handy if you want to be able to quickly access a particular artist or see all recordings of a specific work. (The Albums and Tracks sections work more like the conventional Apple Music equivalent.) It’s worth noting that albums added to your library in Apple Classical do show up in your library in Apple Music as well.
There’s a lot of curation happening in Apple Classical, too. For example, searching for a specific piece will generally pop up a ton of recordings, but the app will identify an Editor’s Choice version as well as Popular Recordings to help separate the wheat from the chaff.2 There are also the usual Essential playlists, as per Apple Music, for artists, eras, and genres, as well as biographies of composers and information about specific pieces. That last is also available from the Now Playing screen, in case you want to quickly see details like the record label or catalog number.
Apple Classical’s Browse interface adds not only the ability to drill down via composers, periods, conductors, soloists, and more, but also playlists via specific instruments if you’re a fan of the French Horn or Lute.
Apple has also added refined controls for sorting within your library or other lists of items; an icon in the top right allows you to arrange items by criteria like Title, Release Date, Recently Added, Popularity, Duration, and more. That’s a really nice feature that makes it way easier to sort through a large list and help find what you’re looking for.
Not just the classics
A few weeks back, in my discussion with Jason about this app before its release, I mentioned that a lot of the challenges with classical music also apply to my favorite genre: movie scores. And lo and behold, Apple Classical includes soundtracks in its catalog, along with scores for Broadway musicals and operas.
Which is certainly cool, but the implementation as it stands right now is a little wonky. Scores have a lot in common with classical music—there are often versions performed by different artists, and many include pieces by different composers on the same album—but they’re not exactly the same, and trying to fit that round peg in that square hole causes a bit of a disconnect where the metadata is concerned.
For example, looking at the score for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse by Daniel Pemberton breaks it down into several subsections with the composer’s name at the top…but also includes several sections labeled “Pemeberton: Spider-Man.” It’s certainly uncool for Apple to reveal his secret identity like that, but more to the point, it breaks the album up into weird subsections. I can only assume this is the result of some automatic cataloging system, as it only seems to have pulled out the tracks with “Spider-Man” in the title. Something similar happens in the Avengers: Endgame score by Alan Silvestri and The Rocketeer score by James Horner, though even weirder in those cases, as it seems to link in to some of the composers’ music from other movies entirely.3
(To see how this idea works more beneficially, you can look at something like this Seiji Ozawa album featuring pieces by both Mussorgsky and Britten, which is divided up into relevant sections by composer and piece.)
I also found tracks attributed to the wrong album, such as the main title for The Force Awakens as a single track on an album labeled as A New Hope.4 I’m hopeful this will get ironed out in time; it is, after all, the app’s first day of availability and there are sure to be some rough edges.
One other note: not all of my movie scores or classical albums showed up in Apple Classical. I think, reading between the lines of the albums that aren’t there, that it’s largely a function of metadata; most of them seem to be albums I ripped that were uploaded to Apple Music and, in some cases, I had already edited the metadata to correct for inconsistencies in the way Apple Music (and iTunes before it) handled them. For example, I have a melded together version of the Tron: Legacy score from multiple tracks that were available separately; there is a Tron: Legacy score available in Apple Classical, but it doesn’t show my version. Likewise, my ripped double-disc sets of the original Star Wars trilogy scores and the deluxe version of The Phantom Menace score don’t appear, as those editions don’t appear to be in Apple Music’s catalog, alas.
Phoning it in
Which brings us to one other oddity: Apple has focused on making Apple Classical available primarily on the iPhone. The app is designed for iOS and though, yes, it does work on iPad in an iPhone-sized window (a far better experience in Stage Manager), you can’t run the app on an Apple silicon Mac, nor does the functionality appear in the Music app. There’s no tvOS option either, for those who might want to listen through their home theater system.
Those are both disappointments, particularly on the Mac side, if not wholly surprising. I have to imagine a macOS version—either integrated in the Music app or as a separate app—is coming at some point, and was simply deemed not to be a priority, but given the many problems with the Music app on the Mac, there’s a definite feeling of that particular venue being ignored.
Part of me wonders if, long term, Apple Classical will eventually find itself folded into a future version of Apple Music, but I’m honestly not sure if that is the best approach. Far be it from me to suggest that every genre of music needs its own app, but I do think that classical music is a special case with enough of a following that it merits it. Whether or not it does get integrated with Apple Music, I hope Apple commits to continuing development and improvement of the app. Many of the artists might be dead, but there’s still plenty of life in classical music.
- Or should I say…Handel. ↩
- And, given that many of these works are in the public domain and thus have hundreds if not thousands of recordings, there’s a lot of chaff. ↩
- In those cases I think it’s because the scores all seem to have tracks with a similar name? Very strange. ↩
- Shame, Apple. Shaaaaaame. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @email@example.com or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]
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