If you want an insight into the clever yet dumb way computers “think”, put “Mozart’s 5th Symphony” into Google. You will be rewarded with everything you didn’t want to know about Beethoven’s 5th. The so-called artificial intelligence assumes you must have meant Beethoven, because his 5th is famous and popular, whereas Mozart’s, written when he was nine and convalescing from illness, is justifiably neither.
Put Mozart’s 5th into a music-streaming service, however, and you would expect the software to find the piece. Not so. Results will vary, but in my tests with Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music I got a random selection of fragments of Mozart, with some that happen to have a 5 somewhere in the name. Mostly, I was directed to Mozart’s 40th because, again, software “knows” if I want Mozart, I must mean his popular 40th.
Music streaming is made for pop music, which is easily catalogued, since if you want to listen to Rihanna, you can just search for Rihanna, and are unlikely to care for details, if they existed, of which recording, conductor or Rihanna opus you want. This is why few of the world’s estimated 20m classical‑music lovers stream – it’s too complicated for existing databases as well as too refined for standard MP3 files.
But a Dutch management consultant, pianist and classical fan, Thomas Steffens, decided a few years ago that the genre should be better organised for streaming. He hired 10 conservatoire students in Amsterdam to catalogue every existing classical recording available in digital form. That done, he took on a team of three music experts to organise the 200-300 new recordings released every week – and to offer recommendations for further exploration of the classical genre.
The resulting app, Primephonic, is a thing of beauty, with elegant functionality and top quality (up to 24-bit) audio files that have been adapted quite brilliantly for the complexity of classical music. If you know the genre well, you’ll love it. If, like me, your knowledge is sketchy, it could change your musical life.