Shazam and Classical Music

It's trickier to use Shazam to identify classical pieces

Even for the seasoned listener, every so often, you'll encounter a piece of classical music you haven't heard before. And sometimes it's very difficult to identify the composer.

Like with other music, the Shazam smartphone app can help you figure out what exactly you're listening to. All a user has to do is open the app, hold the device's microphone close to the source of the music, such as a speaker, and wait for Shazam to "hear" the music.

Most of the time it will only take a few seconds for Shazam to tell you whether you're listening to Bach or Beethoven (or some other classical composer you haven't heard of yet).

As wonderful as this concept is, Shazam does have its limitations within the classical music genre. It's not necessarily because the app itself is not robust, but because often it's hard to distinguish one performance of a classical piece from another. The app doesn't look for a specific recording to compare your sample to, but rather the unique characteristics of a given piece of music, regardless of the performer.

How Shazam Works

Shazam is available for Android, Apple, and other devices, and there's a desktop version as well. In its database of more than 11 billion songs, each song is tagged with an acoustic fingerprint. This fingerprint is based on a time-frequency graph known as a spectrogram. 

When a user activates the app, Shazam compares its catalogue of digital fingerprints to the user's sample.

 

If the app finds a match within its database, the user will receive information on their screen about the artist, genre and album. Several streaming music services such as iTunes, Spotify and YouTube have links embedded within Shazam, to allow a user to get more information about or purchase a (legal) digital version of the song.

 

If Shazam's database can't  identify the song, which grows more and more unusual as the service continues to grow, the user gets a "song not known" message. 

And it's not just songs on the radio; according to Shazam, its app can identify pre-recorded music from television or a movie, or music in a club or other public place. You won't be able to use Shazam for live music, and if you try to hum or sing it a song, the app won't return any results. 

Shazam and Classical Music

Shazam easily identifies mainstream artists from many music genres, however, the company admits that classical music can be a bit more challenging. It's less about the composer than it is about the performer. For instance, hundreds of orchestras have recorded Beethoven's Fifth Symphony over the decades, and while there are unique aspects to each performance, for classical music, the ideal calls for an orchestra to adhere to and honor the original composition as closely as possible.

So while Shazam can certainly identify Beethoven's Fifth, the app may have trouble determining whether the work was performed by The Academy of St Martin in the Fields orchestra or the Boston Symphony Orchestra.