The Discerning Listener’s Guide to Spotify

It’s Monday night. You’re home, working while listening to the Met’s first night of Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini.” You think about finding a recording. You go to Spotify, the most buzzed-about of all the digital music subscription services. You type in “Francesca da Rimini.” The “top hit” is on volume 2 of an album called “The Very Best of Rachmaninoff.”Spotify Franesca search

You try again. You type “Zandonai.” Up comes an album cover with the opera’s name on it. But all you see below, deep in a list of other tracks, are a few selections from said opera. A couple more clicks reveals more snippets. Maybe somewhere in there is a recording that starts like, you know, at the beginning of Act I.

So it still goes in the brave new world of digital music for centuries’ worth of classical repertory. It’s like a storm blew through the last still-open record store and left the entire inventory scattered all over the floor.

There’s a long and spirited discussion of this on Spotify’s community boards. One contributor, “minim,” says: “I’ve searched all over the web and as far as I can tell there is currently NO music service or player of any description which does classical properly and gives classical listeners a chance to find music the way it should logically be searched for. Partial titles, composer names in performer fields (SO not the same thing), missing details (yes, we really do need to know the orchestra, and the conductor, and the soloists and the composer) – it becomes a nightmare.”

Spotify “apps” – curated playlists, with varying degrees of commentary and background attached – can help. Classify offers more than 1,300 playlists organized by genre, instrument, mood, or somewhat less obvious filters, such as a volume or two of the “Greatest Video Game Music.” Classify’s creator, Sweden’s X5 Music Group, also develops unabashedly populist packages of classical music such as a compilation of “The 50 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music” that the company says has stayed in the top 10 of the iTunes charts for the last three years.

A more scholarly approach is curated by a blogger in Beijing. Go to and link to the Spotify app posted in the right-hand column. Want to listen to all of Lutoslawski’s work in chronological order? Fifty years of Arvo Pärt? All the music composed in Nazi prison camps between 1933 and 1945? Your prodigious new friend, known only as Ulysses, can help. There’s a two-day-long playlist of every edition of every Bruckner symphony. Fifteen hours of Bach cantatas.


This curator really helps show off the incredible range and diversity services like Spotify make possible. Maybe it’s the foul Beijing air that keeps him (or her?) inside all day making more playlists.

If you haven’t used Spotify, sign up here. The free version comes with ads, which can be jarring when they interrupt your favorite symphony. For $4.99 a month you can listen ad-free on your computer. For $9.99 you can listen on your mobile devices, listen offline and access all those playlists via sound systems such as Sonos.

(To be fair, searching for classical music can be nearly as frustrating on other digital services. But in this instance the “Francesca” query on iTunes and led directly to a Met recording of the desired opera.)