Classical music’s online motherlode

As regular readers will have noticed, Letter V frequently links to music on YouTube. I’ve been remiss in not singling it out for praise sooner. Now I can make up for that omission and pass along some news at the same time.

First, the news: The web service Epidemic Sound reports on its survey finding that YouTube users made some 200 million selections of classical music this year, a 90 percent year-over-year increase, “making it the fastest-growing genre.” Growth was seen not just in the classical heartlands of Europe, the Americas and East Asia, but also in Africa and the Middle East:


If I’m reading Epidemic Sounds’ post correctly, this is a survey of producers, not consumers – i.e., measuring not what people watch and hear on YouTube but the kinds of music that people who make content for it chose from the firm’s archive. Lots of videos have classical soundtracks; but would you consider hyperactive pets cavorting to “Flight of the Bumblebee” a video about classical music?

So let’s call this survey good news with an asterisk.

Now, the praise: I’m a hardcore YouTube user. I spend far more time watching it than I do television, far more time listening to it than I do radio or my stereo system. When I wind up in the old folks’ home, a laptop, good headphones and YouTube will satisfy my electronic requirements for music. (Assuming some cranky gazillionaire hasn’t bought it and ruined it.)

If you enjoy classical music, or want to get to know it, YouTube is the motherlode.

Its classical content, uploaded by record companies, performers, presenters and civilian music-lovers, covers the whole soundscape, from ancient to avant-garde, from every culture with an art-music canon, and from all eras of recorded sound, wax-cylinder to digital.

Orchestras, opera and ballet companies, chamber groups, music festivals, conservatories and other venues upload full-length performances, most of them at least television-grade, some in high-definition video and audio. You can find numerous documentaries on and interviews of composers and artists.

The main hurdle you’ll face is the way the digital realm organizes music. All pieces, from Gregorian chant to hip-hop, are called tracks or songs. A four-movement symphony or string quartet is not one selection but four, often identified as “songs” titled “allegro con brio,” “larghetto,” etc., with no composer’s name or the work’s actual title listed.

Highbrows trying to negotiate music-streaming services are all too familiar with this, and it’s an issue on YouTube as well.

Record companies’ uploads on the platform, like the downloads they sell, are divided into movements of symphonies, concertos and chamber works, and recitatives, arias and choruses in opera and oratorio. Scrolling at length to find the scherzo or the big aria is a common hassle. Bits of “Goldberg Variations” are scattered like confetti.

Mercifully, you can find works in albums – full recordings with their tracks in correct order – or on uploads of complete performances, quite a few of which are out-of-print or hard-to-find recordings and concert broadcasts, a nice bonus for collectors.

Algorithms, the computer codes that gauge interests and anticipate preferences, have proved to be troublesome, not to say toxic, in much of online and social media. I’ve suffered no toxic shocks with classical music on YouTube. Its algorithms usually are accurate in reading my intentions, and pretty good at “if you like X, try Y” curiosity-piquing.

Access to all this is free, but I recommend that serious listeners and those who use YouTube for other long-form content – films, television shows, audiobooks – pay for the premium service to avoid commercial interruptions.

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