Music and the database problem

This morning I noticed again that Alex Ross, in a tactic I admire and may try to emulate, makes frequent short posts on his blog. One from July 29, which you can find here, points readers to a recent Atlantic article on classical music and iTunes. Relying on that article, Ross mentions that the metadata system for MP3s originally identified only artist, song name, and album title. This wasn’t news to me, and I seem to remember a New York Times article pointing out the problems this created. The tag system was later expanded and includes a field, as database people would call it, for the “composer” of a given song file. This is better, but fitting a piece of music into the defined fields of a database record can still be difficult. How do you identify the arranger of a piece, such as Ravel’s orchestrated version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? How do you note the author of the text for any of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs? What if you’re not satisfied to record Stephen Sondheim as the composer of “Send In the Clowns” and want to credit him as the lyricist as well? In a way, this situation reminds me of the common tendency to credit a film to its director and forget the role of the screenwriter(s). Ross takes a different tack and sees in this tag issue another sign of the plight of composers and songwriters.

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