The UX of classical music, Part 1

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a side project — a web app that organises classical music. It’s called falala.

falala re-organises music information to improve the user experience of browsing through classical music.

I grew up with classical music, playing it at school and listening to it in the car. Over recent years, I’ve listened to more and more, particularly as so much of it is available through services such as Spotify. The main feature of this experience that has stuck out at me is that the interfaces for playing music that we use all the time are really not designed for classical music. In short, the classical music UX that we have today sucks.

Let’s look at a few examples. Say I want to find a particular piece, for the sake of argument “Variations on a theme by Haydn” by Johannes Brahms.

Searching for classical music on streaming services. frequently gives results that are confusing and hard to use.

You’d probably start by searching, as I’ve done in this screenshot. Immediately a few questions come up: Why is the top result seemingly unrelated to what I typed? Why is it giving me ‘songs’ when I’m not looking for songs? Why has it given me three identical-looking songs? Why is the third album that it’s suggesting seemingly totally different? These are all examples of one of the key ways that normal streaming services fall down when delivering classical music: The titles are too long, and the key information tends to be at the end.

Let’s take another example. Perhaps I’m trying to find a particular horn concerto of Mozart. I can remember the tune, but can’t remember the exact name. So I search for ‘Mozart Horn Concerto’.

I’m immediately presented with eight albums which don’t seem to have much different about them apart from the images. Then there are individual ‘songs’ listed below. They are inconsistently named, so sometimes they number the horn concertos, sometimes they show the catalogue number, and sometimes you can see the beginnings of the name of the movement (e.g. rondo or allegro). For the most part, you can’t tell exactly what you are going to get.

Moving onto the artists, well we can see that these are all by Mozart, but who exactly is playing them? On the desktop app, there is no way to find this out unless you play the piece and wait for the list of artists to scroll. So finding a particular piece played by a particular artist is difficult.

The list of artists is also undifferentiated. The microphone icon that Spotify uses to denote artists implies that it treats everyone as a recording artist.

Mozart’s librettist certainly never went anywhere near a microphone. But he certainly has more than 1,269 listeners given the popularity of his works. He suffers from being inconsistently recorded as an artist on Mozart’s operas.

In classical music, you have dead composers, composers who have adapted other composers’ work, librettists, authors who’s words have been set to music, conductors who you can’t ‘hear’ directly at all, and musicians themselves. None of these are differentiated. Movies don’t lump gaffers, grips and producers together in their credits, so why do we have this situation with classical music?

I don’t mean to wail exclusively on Spotify here. But it’s what I use for my listening, so it’s the most convenient. These problems are shared by most of the competitors as well. There are one or two classical streaming apps that I’ve explored, but these are either heavily curated with limited music, or they have other deficiencies in their UX.

Out of curiosity, I decided to see if I could create a different, classical music-focused UX by taking advantage of the spotify API. The first thing was to work out what makes music ‘classical’, which is definitely what Sherlock Holmes would call a ‘three pipe problem’.

In the next article, I’ll discuss how I tackled that problem, and how the information architecture of classical music is unlike other genres, such as pop or country. In the mean time, why not have an explore of some classical music? You could start with the first musician ever recorded to have been bombarded with women’s underwear, Franz Liszt.

John Mildinhall is Creative Director at pebble {code}, a technology innovation consultancy in London.

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