Spotify For Classical Music

This is a tutorial for streaming classical music on Spotify, but first of all, if all you want to do is stream for yourself, and you don't already have a Spotify account, don't bother with Spotify in the first place. It's terrible when it comes to classical. Instead, use the Naxos Music Library.*

I use both Naxos and Spotify. I look to Naxos first, but if something I want isn't there I will search for it on Spotify. There is often overlap, and in some cases Spotify has things that Naxos does not, though usually it's the other way around (for classical anyway). Most importantly for me, I use Spotify for sharing playlists with friends. Below I offer some guidance for classical music in particuar.


1 — Get a Spotify Premium Account.
  • You'll be able to choose higher-quality streaming with a paid account.
  • Classical pieces are often spread out over multiple tracks, and a loud barking ad between them is just the worst.
  • The musicians will might get paid. Like, three cents or something!
2 — Change the Settings

Goal: preserve the music's sound quality, its dynamic range and the pauses between pieces.

What to do:
Find the dropdown by your name at the top of Spotify, choose "Settings", then...

Turn ON:

  • "High Quality Streaming" (sometimes when the application updates this gets turned off 'by mistake' - you will want to double-check this setting periodically).

Click "Show Advanced Settings", then make sure the following are turned OFF:

  • "Autoplay similar songs when your music ends"
  • "Crossfade songs"
  • "Set the same volume level for all songs"

Lastly, turn off both shuffle and repeat.

3 — Prevent Diarrhea

Spotify is organized around the idea that everything is a "song" and that the songs should just dribble on and on, smearing into each other. For a lot of people that's exactly the point: music is their mental wallpaper. If that's what you want classical to be for you, well you're reading the wrong article. Instead I recommend the following:

  • Avoid Spotify's own "classical" playlists.
  • Browse music by album.
  • Make your own playlists.

Avoid Spotify's Own "Classical" Playlists
These are wretched grab-bags of excerpts taken out of context for easy-listening.

Browse Music By Album
Whatever it is you find, click though to the album it comes from. Figure out what it's a part of, then listen to the whole thing. A popular example from the above-mentioned wretched playlists is "Clair de lune" for piano by Debussy — a beautiful piece on its own to be sure, but actually it's taken from a set of four pieces that are better together ("Suite Bergamasque").

Make Your Own Playlists
Make playlists aggressively, before you listen. Playlists are easy to make, and you can always delete them later. Of course if you are listening to entire albums you might not see a need to do this, but in the case that you are actively exploring specific composers or works, playlists help you isolate sets of pieces so that other music doesn't explode your after-impressions of it.

The first reason for using playlists is that Spotify doesn't let you select tracks to play from an album; it autoplays from wherever you start. At the end of some epic symphony, when you might want to come down for a while and let it ring in your head, the next track will start blaring straight away uness you hit stop.

The second reason for using playlists is that Spotify has no composer column — because they don't give a damn. Sorry! Add to that the fact that music meta-data is notoriously inconsistent, and you are in for some confusing times. Take for instance an album with music by more than one composer: oftentimes the track names do not specify the composer, so you can't know who wrote what, and when the album features multi-movement works you can't know where one ends and the next begins (unless you already know the music). Since Spotify never has liner notes nor even a back cover image from the album, you have to look up the album on the web to figure it out. Sheesh. Luckily a lot of newer releases work around this by specifying the composer at the end of the track name — but they shouldn't have to.

This one neat trick:
For playlists containing more than one multi-movement work, I insert a ten-second silent track to separate them. You can do this, too: once you have found this track, you can create duplicates of it by dragging it into your new playist again and again. After the first time, Spotify will ask if you really want a duplicate. Say yes, then when you think you have enough of them, go to the new playlist and drag each copy into place.

Here is an example I made for a friend, which has silent tracks between each piece:

Spotify URI:
spotify:user:1227240304:playlist:0nSt69BgrRu3XrMaqxBaTa
Web Link:
https://open.spotify.com/user/1227240304/playlist/0nSt69BgrRu3XrMaqxBaTa

You don't own the music

Streaming music has changed my listening habits, despite my initial resitance to it, but I still buy physical media. Streaming has many upsides, chief among them that it allows me to explore music I would never buy on sight, leading to unexpected discoveries. But the downside is a lowered sense of commitment: I can listen to anything, so who cares? Sometimes the unexpected discoveries are only made possible by commitment. In college for instance, when I had little money, that one CD I would allow myself to buy was a big deal. I had committed to it, and I had paid for it, so that was it then: I had to try to like it, even if my subsequent first impression wasn't very strong.

With streaming services on the other hand, you run the danger of treating music as so much shit. You don't 'own' the music in any sense. And then there is the fact that albums can vanish from the service entirely, due to contracts expiring or some such. More than once I've made playlists for other people and then later found that music had disappeared from them.

For all of the above reasons (plus the fact that you can't stream high-quality surround sound as yet) I still buy physical copies of albums that I really like, and more recently I've experimented with downloading multi-channel studio-quality flac files from Primephonic - for example I bought the entire Dutilleux series by the Seattle Symphony in surround sound. They were huge files, but they sound incredible (especially after I figured out how to play them correctly — perhaps the subject of a future post).


*The Naxos Music Library is far better than Spotify for classical:

  • CD-quality streaming (with the higher-price tier). With a good pair of headphones and a headphone amp/dac it will sound fantastic.
  • Many labels: big and small, foreign and domestic. For Naxos itself, new albums appear immediately, while for other high-end ones like Chandos or BIS there may be a delay — but they will show up eventually.
  • You can play a whole album, or select a multi-movement/multi-track work off an album, or select individual tracks. This is awesome — seriously. I use this feature constantly.
  • Many albums incude a link to a PDF of the liner notes, the same as the booklet you would get with the CD.

Some drawbacks to Naxos:

  • Gapless playback is buggy.
  • When searching through a label's catalog, you can't list albums by release date.
  • Very old UI. This doesn't stop it from working but it's not something cool I want to show people...


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