For many people, listening to music is no longer its own activity but a constant background state; the format we consume is not albums or EPs, but curated playlists.
And while in some ways limitless music via a monthly subscription gives us more scope for discovery than ever, it also hinders any sense that our choices are organic. The major music providers – Spotify, Apple, and Amazon Music – guide us with algorithmic recommendations to genres, moods and vibes.
The pop music industry has largely adapted to playlist culture, with the major Spotify playlists replacing radio as marketing targets for new releases, and pop becoming increasingly homogenous. Classical music, though – which evolves at a much slower pace and has a great deal more history to contend with – cannot adapt so easily to the categorised format that makes streaming services tick.
Each piece has multiple recordings, so do you categorise by composer or performer? People generally know which work they want to listen to – but how do you square that with the “albums” format? Aside from these interface issues, there are bigger questions, too. How do you make it discoverable when people don’t know what to search for? And is it sacrilege to put Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on a playlist called “Chilled Piano”?
This week, Apple launched a new streaming app that may provide a solution: Apple Music Classical. It comes free with the £10.99 monthly subscription to Apple Music, and promises subscribers that they can “easily find any recording in the world’s largest classical music catalogue with fully optimised search; enjoy the highest audio quality available and experience many classical favourites in a whole new way with immersive Spatial Audio; browse expertly curated playlists, insightful composer biographies, and descriptions of thousands of work”.
Apple are navigating some tricky ground here. While the huge canon of classical music, and by extension tickets to live performances, can seem daunting and impenetrable to those not already in the know, bringing classical music into the modern day to fit with current listening habits risks alienating the purists. Classic FM, which plays popular pieces like The Lark Ascending and the Elgar Cello Concerto on repeat, is often cited by classical afficionados as trivial and cliched, an oversimplification of a rich tapestry of work. Yet it draws in 5 million weekly listeners, and undoubtedly makes classical music – albeit a small selection of it – more accessible.
Yet unlike Classic FM, about which the primary complaint is that it’s stuffy and staid, Apple Music Classical exudes a remarkable freshness. While it might initially appear jarring to see the great composers presented in the same greatest-hits format as Lewis Capaldi – “Essential Beethoven”, “Essential Bach”, etc – it’s also extremely useful, when one of the most common barriers to entry for prospective listeners is that they “don’t know where to start”. These “Essentials” playlists are also formatted with subheadings of works so you can see the tracks as movements, rather than multiple works simply running on into one another – a major flaw when attempting to navigate classical listening on other services.
For more experienced listeners, there is plenty to explore. On composers’ pages there is an option to explore by work, or by recording, meaning both types of discovery are possible. The library tab looks much the same as the original Apple Music, but offers additional categories of “works” and “composers”, which neatens things up nicely. And on the homepage, alongside educational material, music by mood (“Classical Sleep”, “Classical Concentration”) and genre discovery (“Baroque Essentials”), there are also new recordings, exclusive content from partner orchestras like the LSO and New York Philharmonic, and playlists of much more niche material in a category called “undiscovered”.
When you are grappling with the task of categorising all music ever, it’s bound to be difficult to create a consistent, user-friendly taxonomy. But while it may seem counterintuitive, Apple Music Classical shows that the rich canon of classical music can be integrated with a streaming format and could, if they’ll try it, bring new joy to thousands of ears.