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Laurie Niles

iPod Blues

January 19, 2009 at 11:15 PM

"I think you would benefit from listening to this music,' I told my student, who was struggling to memorize her latest piece.

Her mother looked at me apologetically, "The problem is that we no longer have CD player that works," she said. "We listen to everything on MP3 nowadays. But, the laser on our computer must be broken or something because I can't seem to rip it to our computer so we can listen to it there..."

Her travails made me philosophical; certainly she's not the only person with these kinds of problems. 

Advancing technology has certainly put a crimp on my own listening style. And, to date myself, I did start with vinyl. Then when I was a teenager, people collected cassettes. Seems like the minute I got my considerable collection of cassettes categorized and alphabetized, the CD revolution came. I have stacks upon stacks of CDs. I've moved all over the United States with them, dutifully packing and unpacking them, and by now they are complete mess and take up way too much space. 

Then, I was given an MP3 player. Wonderful, I can put all those CDs onto this MP3 player! I put a lot of them on there, only to get an iPod a few years later and be unable to transfer anything from one to the other. And as miraculous as is the idea of compacting my entire collection of recordings into a tiny, handheld device, I found that I actually didn't WANT them all in hand. Do I really need all 10 Mahler Symphonies there in my iPod, which is also my iPhone, which is also my address book, which is also my Internet connection, which is also my camera? Why not just carry around a small, auxiliary brain? My own brain is difficult enough to negotiate!

So I throw my hands up, sick of trying to organize my music, sick of trying to preserve it, sick of trying to acquire it, sick of trying to find a way to listen to it.

To be sure, I do love my iPhone. But I don't feel the same about my recordings as I felt when I had something physical to hold them. And yet, those technologies were flawed as well.

Recently I felt the urge to listen to Beethoven, Symphony No. 7. Where was that recording I had, with Sir Colin Davis? Ah yes, on cassette. Is it worth digging, to find it? Oh good, there it was, I found it. Ah, I love this recording. Except..what's that high pitched whine, that's getting louder and louder and...Oh geez, not the Old Cassette Whine, no! Fatal. 


I guess we'd better not stop making live music, folks! 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 19, 2009 at 11:20 PM


I am the same.  I accumulated hundreds of disc as a kid that would be worth a small fortune now but sold them for a song when I came to Japn in the mists of time. Now my CD collection is so huge even the though of moving gives me the heebie jeebies.  I loved the idea of MD players but found the transfer from cd extremely problematic and the batteries unrelaible andannoying. The other day my trio decided thta in the run up to a number of cocnerts we were going to reinstigate our practic eof recoridng each work during rehearsal. My two colleaguea produced these digital thingummy jigs that one plug sint a computer which seem like newfangled nonsense to me sicne I don`t have a compute ranyway....   `Can`t we use MD like we did three yeras ago , ` I whine.  Both look at the idiot. `MD went out of circulation about that time. `  Apparently its afailed technology of sorts.

We settles on a tape reocrder.



From Benjamin K
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 12:09 AM

Laurie, you can use iTunes to convert the track for your student to MP3 and then you could copy it onto a USB memory stick for them. Note, that by default iTunes will convert everything to AAC, so you will need to temporarily change the settings to make it use MP3 instead. To do that, choose "Preferences", then the tab "Advanced", then the tab "Importing", then choose"MP3 Encoder" under the "import using:" menu.

From Royce Faina
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 12:46 AM

THANK YOU BENJAMMIN K! I'll name my first born after you! Sorry Buri.....

From J Kingston
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 1:25 AM


I recommend that you use the Playlist feature and load anything you may even suspect you may want to listen too. I have a rock playlist, violin concerto favorite recordings playlist etc....just about every category you can come up with can be a playlist which you ocan then merge together. Put all tthe versions on the ipod and then they can  be categorized under multiple categories.. You can buy a book at the store and it will easily help you organize all of your songs. I have a Vivalidi, Bach, Glass, Perlman, Anne Sophie and zydeco playlist for example. When my family is in the car, I listen to completely different music so it is easy to switch around. Additionally, you can categorize any podcasts you listen to into those groups as well. I will warn you that if you accidently hit this thing called the shuffle, it throws everything out of order. This can be a big drag sometimes on long car rides when you want to listen to things in a specific order.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 2:58 AM

I have soooo many CDs.  I would have even more, but I purge every few years, and give the unwanted ones to my Mom.  Storage has been *cough* an issue, but I got one of my handy friends to put up bracket shelves up on the walls for me.  Problem solved, for now...

I haven't done the Ipod thing myself, for several reasons.  One of my composer buddies gave me a huge lecture on the evils of compressed sound, for one.  The other is that ear buds, or any other type of headphone, can be very damaging to hearing.  Not a place I want to go!  Ipods are also expensive, and from what I hear, fragile and prone to premature battery deterioration.

Another reason I am not interested in an Ipod is I really don't want to be listening to music all the time.  Sometimes, silence is best.  I don't really want to be at the grocery store pondering chocolate brands with Schubert in my ears.  That cheapens the music, and I can't multi-task anyway!  In other words, I really don't need a soundtrack to my life.  Besides, I can't get music out of my head!!!  Always on!!!  The cheapest, easiest way to go!!!  (Right now:  Turandot).

Also, there is something so nice about holding the CD, reading the liner notes, and looking at the pictures of the composers and musicians.  It is more of an complete tangible experience.  My Baby Boomer friends feel the same way about vinyl.  I do feel the same way about books, and the Kindle thingy.  I want to feel the weight of the Proust, turn the page, even stick in little post it notes.  Or, the excitement of getting The Strad in the mail, a nice change from the bills.

I do get enjoyment from my online Naxos subscription though.  The sound quality is a bit meh, and my computer speakers are cheap and sad, but it is a great way to peruse all sorts of new and offbeat repertoire.  Wonderful value too.

I don't think my students actually buy CDs though.  I'm pretty sure they all have Ipods.  And cell phones, and digital cameras, and video games, and Webkins, etc.

From Michael Divino
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 3:20 AM

I agree.  itunes doesn't provide a  ripping open a cd package and waiting in anticipation to listen to it, only cds do.  

From Roland Garrison
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 4:46 AM

Wow, this is opening up a whole lot of subjects about music.
Compressed music does have a bad reputation, and a lot of it was deserved. Much of the older music was compressed to the point of destruction when put on Vinyl; the primary reason was the cost of producing good music was not held as important back in the day.

Aside from that, MP3 is not the only format. Windows does a bit of comparison (actualy, pushing their format), it can be found at

Another comparison, a bit more balanced, can be found at

MP3s can be stored with varying levels of quality, so it is not automatically something to avoid. Ear buds WILL damage your ears (not 'may') without a great amount of care, because they focus the sound directly into your ear and they create a sound chamber, since the ear canal is closed by the ear bud; damage can occur at much lower decibel levels than other sound.

Ear buds are not the only way to listed; I avoid the buds, and use over the ear headphones.

When I am out walking with the puppies, it is so Kool (sic) to put on the headphones and listen while kicking leaves and tromping through streams.

There is other software to rip music; I use the basic Windows Media Player.

 Oh, I almost forgot; if they can't use the internal CD player that came with the computer, external ones can be purchased and connected to a USB port. I checked out one web site, and found 6 of them that were under $100.00, the least expensive was $79.00. I have seen them as low as $49.00 in the past on sale. Once tehy connect to an USB port, they behave exactly like the internal one. Another option is to replace the internal one; they are fairly easy to swap out.

From Benjamin K
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 10:47 AM

I'd be happy to put all my CDs onto my iPhone but unfortunately the iPhone doesn't have enough storage space for that. This is not really a problem in terms of not having enough music on the iPhone, but it is a problem when syncing the iPhone with the library on my computer, because I have to put in some extra effort to tick on and off the tracks I don't want to go onto the iPhone (for lack of space).

What I found even more bothersome about iTunes and any other digital music player software out there is that there doesn't seem to be a single one which has a cataloguing system that is suitable for classical music. They are all designed with the assumption that everything is categorised by song and album. It seems software developers do not listen to classical music.

When import works into iTunes, I use a workaround by which I use the "album" field for the work title, e.g. 'String Quartet No.11 in F minor, op.95 "Serioso"', then I put the movement number and title into the "song name" field. I also put the composer into the "artist" field and the interpreters into the "album artist" field. This way each work is treated by the software as an album. Who cares that a classical work is sharing the same CD with another work? The generally implied association of album=CD simply doesn't make sense here.

A big problem with all music players occurs when you have the same work in different arrangments and/or different performances by different interpreters. That usually confuses the software completely and you have to go through an awful lot of hoops to make it distinguish between the different "versions" of the same work. Maybe somebody should teach those Apple folks some classical music knowledge. If Apple was to treat classical music properly, everybody else would then follow suit.

From Jim Jonah
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 11:45 AM
What's sad is the guy who runs the iTunes store for apple is a classical music lover. Maybe an "open letter" to him would about "fixing" the ID3 tag standard so that it works for classical music is in order.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 12:39 PM

For me, the iPod is essential for commuting.  It has turned my 45-minutes-each-way to and from work into almost an auxiliary lesson and/or orchestra rehearsal.  I agree with Anne about not *always* wanting to listen to music, but this kind of multitasking is something that I can do and that seems to help me learn the music better.  (Except for the time I left my sheet music on the train!  Aaaaaahhh!) 

Also, the early morning, on your way to work, is one of the times when it can be helpful to have a soundtrack to your life.  Nothing like a little William Tell Overture while waiting for the bus!

In my previous biotech job, I had to do brain surgery (on rats).  The procedure was very complicated and difficult and still had to be done with speed.  My boss was the best, she did it in about 5 minutes per procedure.  My rate was about 8 minutes per, most of the time.  An experiment for screening a drug usually took 3 hours or more of this.  I developed a playlist for my iPod that kept me focused and kept me going.  It was a mixture of pop, rock, and classical.  It had a certain rhythm and cycle to it:  a series of songs or pieces that built tension with a driving rhythm, then release with something "relaxing."   Other people listened to the radio, but I couldn't stand the DJ yakking away, and I needed my own rhythm and my own music.

From Benjamin K
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 2:04 PM


Unfortunately, Apple is a company that doesn't listen to customer requests unless they are totally inundated with the same request, over and over again, for a long time, almost as if they wanted to make sure they won't possibly waste their time on something that is fashionable only this season but not next season and thereafter.

You can get yourself an Apple ID (if you are an iTunes store customer you already have one) and file a bug with Apple's bug report system online. Requests are treated by software people as bugs and if you talk to Apple developers or managers with any kind of suggestion they will encourage you to file it on their bug report system. In the course of my job I have here and there come across a few occasions where we actually did that and some of the cases had been very strong with management following up on the report later on with fairly senior folks at Apple, but to my knowledge, nobody I know of who has ever filed any request has ever seen any result coming out of it. So, from experience, I would have to conclude that making any kind of suggestion towards making iTunes' cataloguing compatible with classical music is most likely futile and nothing but a waste of time.

The only approach I can imagine that might generate some result is either to develop a plug-in for iTunes to bolt on some form of desirable behaviour (if that is technically feasible) or a newly developed piece of software that does what a listener of classical music would want it to do, ideally this would just be the user interface with a new cataloguing and playlist system, reusing the actual playback engine that Apple already provide through their Quicktime framework. However, even though this would cut down on the effort required, it would still be quite a bit of work to do, likewise any kind of plug-in. Unless some classical music loving software geek comes along to take on such a project for their diploma or out of sheer enthusiasm, I can't see how such a piece of software would come about. Without such a piece of software being available and then generating enough interest for Apple to notice that there is demand for it, I don't see how we would ever see classical music properly supported in iTunes. Without Apple and iTunes doing it, I can't see how anybody else would do it.

From Bruce Patterson
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 6:24 PM

I love my vinyl LPs but it didn't take very many moves for me to decide to ditch the 78 collection. Many great old recordings out there and it feels good when I actively have to get up and put a record on to listen... it sounds good as well. It's active listening - less active than getting up and going to a concert, but still active.

My daughter has an ipod but I am old fashioned and like to walk in silence. It gives me time to think.

I'm well versed in digital audio and have lots of recording gear with which to get my 'gadget' fix!

From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 6:39 PM

Whew! Who among us realize that this conversation done 10 years ago would have made sense only to researchers at M.I.T.? Funny what happens when time flies, it seems we've all developed into rocket scientists!

My younger daughter was 8 when she asked me, "Dad, if in medieval times they didn't have electricity, how did they charge their cellphones?"  ;-))

From Ausar Amon
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 6:43 PM

The Ipod is the best. I just cannot do with CDs anymore. Once I get a CD i import it onto itunes and then onto my Ipod. Itunes can keep things so organized that CDs are just a bother. I have the Heifetz Collection, The Fritz Kreisler Collection from RCA and Mahler's ten symphonies :) plus many more all categorized in chronological order and by artist. 

it works really well for me.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 7:12 PM

My brother is a rocket scientist for NASA.  He loves his Ipod.  (Insert smiley face here).

I like what Bruce said:  "Time to think".  Now, maybe I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer (that would be my brother!), but I actually need time to think.  No music, tee vee, chatter, although I am OK outside with the birds and the traffic noise.  (Well, not car alarms.  Car alarms are...alarming).

From E. Smith
Posted on January 20, 2009 at 9:41 PM

One thing the MP3 player has changed is the way we experience music socially. A few years ago I was always annoyed at the sound of loud music coming from boom boxes and car stereos. Now that experience is pretty rare- everyone walks around plugged into their own personal soundtrack.

As for me, I love the flexibility of being able to download so many different recordings, classical and otherwise, into MP3 format, and the way it's easier to organize digital media than a ten shelves of CDs (and don't let me get started on the closetful of LPs we own but can't play.) But I miss the physical record jacket. I miss paging through the CD inserts in 5 languages and studying the cover art as I listen. 

YouTube is changing our experience of music even more than the initial digital revolution. My daughter has a channel where she posts various performances, and one comment she gets again and again from young players is that they use her YouTube videos as study aids (for better or for worse!) She also uses YouTube videos to aid her study of music. 

From Tess Z
Posted on January 21, 2009 at 4:55 AM

The mp3 player has certainly revolutionized how we listen to music...and where.  I'm okay with it.  What I'm more afraid of is the digital book readers.  I love books.  All books.  Any books.  I love the feel of the vintage cloth covers, the smell of a library who's walls are covered in centuries old wood and shelf after shelf of ancient texts.  I refuse to Kindle.

From Bonny Buckley
Posted on January 21, 2009 at 10:47 AM

I pretty much decided to skip the iPod revolution.  Kids these days seem to love to tune out to the external world and in to whatever they have on their players.  Not too unlike walkmans were in the 80s.  Instead I am happy with using streaming music as found on and the loads that you can get from some other sites.  I like to be available to the world around me when I'm walking around out of doors, as much as I can be not stuck in my own head already.  Call me old fashioned but I like CDs too -- load them up on my laptop and then I can give them away if I don't want to store the disks.  Or return the library ones on time!  Yet there is definitely a place for YouTube -- I love it that I have this tool at my fingertips which can be a great basis for classroom discussions and for 'trying on' new songs.  It has really leveled the playing field and I love it! 

From Elizabeth Musil
Posted on January 21, 2009 at 3:36 PM

I've been wanting an mp3 player now for several years, but had to wait because I was waiting til I could afford a 20g or bigger one that would fit my whole music library - as I have moved around a lot over the last few years and dont see this changing in the next few years.  My CD's stay at home with my parents, I travel with my music library on my laptop and my mp3 player - I find it especially useful while on trips - on the plane, on the train, in the car - an excellent replacement for my clunky CD player and mass of CD's.  It is convienient and a traveler's best friend.  But I can never understand how people can stand listening to mp3s all the time, for example during everyday activities, or walking down the street.  Like others here have written, it is nice just to enjoy the silence, or to interact with others, instead of listening to music at levels that will damage hearing (I hate when people are listening to their mp3 player at a volume so loud that you can identify what they are listening to....I once was in a train where a kid's music was so loud, I could hear bass and lyrics, not only over the noise of the train, from across the aisle and several seats back, but through my own player mp3 player as well with the volumn turned up at least 15x higher than what I usually listen to it in an effort to tune it out....)

At 24, I am still young enough to be part of today's youth, but I am just barely old enough to have gotten to know records when I was little, and there is just something about a record - holding it in the hands, putting it on the turntable and dropping the needle, the first couple of moments of static, and then the music - I love this.  In the US, records, and record players, disappeared from stores when I was still fairly young.  But when I first traveled to Germany several years ago, I found that it is still possible to buy record players in the stores, so all of those old albums don't have to sit unused in the closet.  Hooray!

From Bruce Patterson
Posted on January 21, 2009 at 10:56 PM

There is a a growing interest in vinyl LPs. Many people are discovering or re-discovering the joys of vinyl. Vinyl records do not lend themselves to mindless listening and un-activity.

Some cd's may approach the sound of vinyl these days but it is rare. No mp3's that I have heard come close.

If a person appreciates a good player(s), a good instrument(s), and a good room(s) with good acoustic properties, then I feel that that person should also develop the ability to appreciate good playback.


From Bill DeFilippis
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 12:35 AM


You don't have to kill yourself with clicking and unclicking. In Itunes, you can create a playlist/directory. On the setup for your Ipod, you can tell it to synch only with certain director(ies)...our Itunes has some ridiculous amount of music on it, but my Ipod is only 16 gig, and it makes it easy for me. When music comes into Itunes, you need to make sure to put it in the playlist you synch with, but it beats clicking or unclicking a lot of stuff.

MP3 quality varies (or any digitally compressed music format), it depends on how the music was recorded originally and how it was ripped.To save space, most 'ripper' programs have a default setting that is a compromise between sound quality and space. Some programs use a very low bitrate setting, and you end up with pretty gross music on the other end. You don't have much choice with stuff you download, there you are at the mercy of the site (hopefully sites will start offering higher quality audio downloads), but with ripped ones it can usually be made better.

Music is always about context. Frankly, in noisy environments like the street, subway, office, or even in a car, it generally doesn't lend itself to high quality listening (there are exceptions, but you are talking high end audio in high end, quiet cars). Ipod's don't reproduce sound as well as live playing through a good stereo and speakers, but that isn't a surprise (and Ipod buds as speakers are attuned to Brittney Spears, not Hillary Hahn). With good headphones, like the Bose sound cancelling ones, you would be surprised how good an ipod with properly ripped tracks do in the listening category. I also get great sound out of Itunes, using  a good set of multimedia speakers on my computer...but it doesn't compare to the best vinyl recordings IMO, either.

From Benjamin K
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 2:48 AM

@ Bill

"In Itunes, you can create a playlist/directory. On the setup for your Ipod, you can tell it to synch only with certain director(ies)"

Yes, I know about that, but that still doesn't help me because I have about a hundred or so smart playlists where classical works end up in automatically depending on things such as sub-genre (violin solo, violin concert, string quartet) composer etc etc. Thus I have to work out all the time which playlists I want to check and uncheck before syncing.

Even that approach does not work. Let's say for example that I have all Haydn string quartets in my library but I only want to sync the Erdody quartets on my iPhone. Now I have to maintain two "All String Quartets" playlists for this to work, one for all the string quartets in the library and another one for all string quartets on the iPod. However, this means I have to assemble the playlist with all the quartets for the iPod manually, I can no longer use the smart playlist feature for it. This is just one example, but the problem exists throughout all the pieces because almost every work shows up in multiple smart playlists.

From Bill DeFilippis
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 2:56 PM


Point taken, I didn't realize you were already using playlists (my goof) . As others have pointed out, Itunes was not designed around classical music, it is focused on pop music. Unfortunately, because Itunes is a closed product, it would be almost impossible to create an add in to do the kind of things you wish and it is likely that Apple with its legal department would be less then thrilled.  It amazed me that when Microsoft came up with the zune, that they didn't come up with a killer music library program with it.

From Bruce Patterson
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 3:54 PM

Supposedly the Ipod compression format is very accurate and close to lossless. The main problem with getting super high quality playback comes from the digital to analog converters. Really good converters would prevent the Ipod from being affordable. These expensive 'audiophile' systems for Ipod playback are ridiculous!

Apple released their quarterly earnings and they were at record high due to Ipod and Iphone sales. I heard how many Ipods were sold but don't remember the number - it was millions and millions...

From Benjamin K
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 4:49 PM

@ Bill

"Unfortunately, because Itunes is a closed product, it would be almost impossible to create an add in to do the kind of things you wish and it is likely that Apple with its legal department would be less then thrilled."

Sounds like an urban myth to me. Most Apple applications have plug-in APIs. I haven't checked if that's the case with iTunes though. Even if it doesn't, at least for iTunes on a Mac, it wouldn't be impossible to create add ins, simply because iTunes on the Mac is based on a programming environment that allows changes in a running program even if the source code for the program is not available. For info on this you can search for: Alan Kay, Late Binding, Smalltalk, Objective-C and Cocoa.

But like I said, any kind of software work requires some effort and other than some geek going for it for the sheer "fun" of it, I can't see anybody wanting to invest the time and the sweat.

As for the need to amend the ID3 tag specification, well, I have just skimmed over the current specification at and it seems that all the fields one would need for proper cataloguing of classical music are there already. Even sub-genres are possible (using so called refinements in the content type field).

The only thing that is missing is an on/off field to control whether a track should be treated as a song which is part of an album or as a movement which is part of a work. This would either require one additional tag, or it could be inserted as a refinement into the content type field.

From this, I gather that it is not for lack of fields in the ID3 specification that there isn't any player that treats classical music properly. I will have to conclude that it is for lack of understanding of classical music by the software folks who design and develop these applications.

@ Bruce

We weren't talking about audio quality. We were talking about the way in which music is catalogued in the various players, the way in which players treat all music as songs and albums, whereas for classical music the behaviour should be movements and works oriented. This may seem at first sight like a non-issue but the devil is in the detail and the song/album behaviour does indeed create problems with classical libraries.

From Ray Chen
Posted on January 23, 2009 at 9:52 PM

On the quality front, 320 AAC is pretty good, probably better than the equivalent bitrate mp3 but on a good system with good speakers, you can easily hear the difference between 320 AAC and uncompressed.  However, the good news is that Itunes also supports a "lossless compression" format.  It seems to cut the storage requirements by a factor of 2 (on average) as compared to a factor of 4 (for 320 AAC) but the lossless compression doesn't lose any information so the digital bitstream that you get after uncompressing it is identical to what's in the original WAV file.

As for smart playlists, yes, you need to use keywords or something.  It's a pain but once you tag the tracks (or albums) you want with tags that make sense, then you can use smart playlists to collect them up.  In your case, you could tag all the Erdody quartets with the keyword Erdody and have a smart playlist that contains only tracks with that keyword where the tracks are sorted by albums.  The painful part here is that you have to manually tag all tracks (or groups of tracks) with the tags you want.  The other good (and painful) thing is that the tags can be pretty arbitrary.  If you really wanted to, for example, you could tag all the works you know that are in the key of A major with the keyword "A-major" and then create an A-major only smart playlist.

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