How To Tag Classical Music Files Effectively

How To Tag Classical Music Files Effectively

There’s plenty of technology to help you get your digital music collection into shape, but most approaches are designed with an artist-centric pop music approach in mind. Lifehacker reader Chris outlines an alternative approach to use if you have a large classical music collection and want to play movements in the correct order.

Picture by Horia Varlan

Here’s how Chris does it:

As any classical music geek can attest, most music players and apps do not handle classical music elegantly. The problem is that the usual way of organising pop music is Artist -> Album -> Title, whereas with classical music, it’s Composer -> Composition ->Movement. Using a tag editor, such as Mp3tag, and with a bit of cutting and pasting, the relevant tags can be rendered more classical friendly.

For example, the first movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata number 16 becomes:

Artist: Beethoven Piano Sonatas Album: Piano Sonata #16 in G Title: 1. Allegro Vivace

The track number should also be changed to the number of the movement.

This makes it much easier to locate pieces on an iPod, or a music app and to play the movements in the correct order.

This approach won’t always apply — for instance, you might also want to reflect a particular conductor or performer in your listings — but it does make more sense than standard tagging. Got your own system or preferred tool for managing digital classical music? Tell us in the comments. Thanks Chris!


  • IMHO that’s a completely useless way of labelling classical tracks . There are so many ways in which it is deceptive and insufficient.

    There is a difference between (Album) Artist and Performer which is not reflected above.

    Album Artist: Beethoven
    Composer: Beethoven, Ludwig van
    Performer: Richard Goode (for example)
    Album: BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas
    Title: Piano Sonata No.16 in G – 1. Allegro Vivace.

    I always put the complete track title in because I will often have multiple versions of the same piece by different performers, or even by the same performer at different points in their career (perhaps there’s a live album).

    On albums with multiple composers, I will often prefix the title with a capitalized version of the Composer’s surname as you may end up with a track listing with a great deal of ambiguity. Most software playback screens don’t include the composer name, and since they’re not the performer and will not be the Album artist unless the whole album is their works, then the track title is the only place to make it visible.

    This also applies to a lot of jazz albums where standards are played.

    • It’s good to have comprehensive information in your tags, but I am aiming to make classical pieces more accessible on an iPod, or smart phone. In that situation, composer and performer are not normally visible and the lengthy title you use won’t fit on the screen. The concept of an album has limited validity with digital recordings, so it’s easier to use the album tag for the name of a composition, so as to avoid the need for a lengthy title for each movement.

  • I have to read the tags from every digital device I have from iTunes to the SONOS controller on my iPhone. I also have to accommodate a variety of search and indexing options across all devices & platforms – most tend to ignore composer, so again the title field gets to be the backup. On even my smaller devices, the title tag scrolls to show the information in almost all cases.

    I dispute that “concept of an album has limited validity with digital recordings” as I have hundreds of live concert and recital recordings in my collection out of thousands of digital and post-digitised recordings. Short of making every single track (or some multi-movement bundles) an album, there’s no way to show performer/composer information as you describe.

    • Mike, I’m not suggesting this as a comprehensive way of organising your collection. Personally I have all my music digitised in an uncompressed format, using the default tag labels, but I also keep a subset of compressed music for use on my Android phone and that’s where I use the tagging scheme I have suggested. Since the vast bulk of classical music is in sonata (multi-movement) form, for symphonies, concertos, sonatas, trios, quartets, quintets, etc., tagging each composition as an album works fine. I’ve got 12 gigabytes (about 100 hours) of music on my phone and I can guarantee the system works fine.

  • I guess I don’t have time to deal with retagging my 300GB of uncompressed music in the same fashion.

    “Since the vast bulk of classical music is in sonata (multi-movement) form, for symphonies, concertos, sonatas, trios, quartets, quintets, etc., tagging each composition as an album works fine”

    You have only one (performed) version of any of these, and know who it would be? None of them appears as part of a recital program of works by other composers?

  • Mike, at the risk of being repetitious, it’s just a way to make classical music easily accessible on an iPod or a smart phone.
    No, I don’t bother to put different performances of the same piece on my phone. I also would not bother re-tagging 300GB of music – just the 30GB that I have compressed and copied to my phone. Clearly, this method is not going to meet the needs of an afficionado like yourself.

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