Five factors to consider regarding canonicalisation

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Canon, when applied to music releases and musical artists, is the standard way in which different musical entities are represented. Bands, singers, soloists, releases, recordings, works and more all have different ways in which their textual or musical representations can be decreed canonical or not. For instance, the order of tracks in an album, the correct album art for a release or the correct spelling for an artist psuedonym.

Browsing around this blog you'll notice one of the great advantages of computer music libraries is their flexibility. In the old days of physical music libraries, your choices were limited to which order you stacked your albums in. Now, you can browse your music library by many different variables: album name, artist name, year or genre amongst others.

The ability to browse this way is provided by music tags within your music files. By editing your music files, you are able to identify and classify your music to make it easy to browse. But this ability to edit the tags allows the possibility that you will perform this identification in a non-canonical way.

Being a musical artist is a tough life. You dedicate your life to producing great art and pour your soul into your work, producing recordings of beauty. And then, fans and collectors come along and compromise that work for the sake of convenience or their own whims. The cheek!

Let's talk canonicalisation. That is: the standard form of representing an object. In musical works this can relate to album names, track names, the artist alias or psuedonym adopted. It can go beyond textual descriptions though; obviously track list orderings should be conserved in a canonical reproduction of a release, but also volume levels and length of gaps between tracks (if at all).

In general, I think it's best to work with artists when organising your music collection. Your music collection gets named in a standard way and you respect artists' 'artistic decisions'. Here are five ways to make sure you work with an artist rather than against:

1. Artist aliases

Many artists release music under different aliases. This may be during a periods in which their output changes, or it may just be down to a whim of the artist.

Artists for releases should therefore ideally be named after the artist that released the musical work under consideration. But what if you own recordings from artists that change their name more often than their socks?

One of the problems with deciding which alias to adopt as the artist for releases in your music library is where the differences in name become more subtle. Letter case changes for instance can occur over time.

Other difficulties are where the same recordings are released under different names, due to some legal issue. Suede is known as The London Suede in the US, for instance. And in case you didn't think artists really cared about this canonicalisation stuff, here's Brett Anderson:

"The London Suede is not the name I chose for the band, [...] I didn't change it happily, and I'm not going to pretend I did."

In these circumstances I believe the canonical artist remains Suede.

2. Album and track capitalisation

Some people get pretty militant over album and track name capitalisation. My wife detests "Mixed Capitals in Titles" like the 'i' in in. If you are especially wedded to any of the letter case styles then by all means adopt them.

Artists do sometimes assign very specific capitalisation to some tracks, however. They're not beyond making up words too, and in such circumstances I think it better to adopt the artist's own form.

3. Multi discs

Management of your multi disc releases is a significant challenge in computer music libraries. There are multiple things to consider: file/folder organisation, DISCNUMBER tagging, and the potential of including disc number artifacts in the album title.

The absolute minimum to preserve the release's canon is that default playback of the tracks in the release should proceed through each disc in order, playing the tracks in order on the first disk, then the second and so on. Everything you do in your re-organisation of your music should be to preserve that rule. If you don't like disc number artifacts in your album titles for instance then you need to adopt the DISCNUMBER tag to separate the discs,


4. Gapless

Gaps are largely a binary matter; they are either there or they aren't. If you introduce gaps where they shouldn't be, for instance on classical, dance recordings or any other release, the release is no longer canon. What would Billy Shears think?

The good news is that if you follow my recommendations to adopt lossless encoding for music you'll get gapless 'for free'. If you use a lossy encoding you need to make sure that your tracks retain gaps by adopting some tagging hacks.

5. Volume normalisation

In terms of canon, the most important place to start with volume normalisation is to get it right intra-release. That is, the tracks need to have accurate relative volume levels.

This is less of a problem than the other canonicalisation factors. This is because when the music is acquired the relative volume information is normally copied. For instance, if you rip a CD, the volume of the CD and the relative volume of each track will be preserved.

Nevertheless, if the artist intended a very quiet release in relation to other musical works, which is possible, the relative volume in comparison to other works should be respected.

Don't make musical artists sad... get canonical-ising!

Thanks to Luz Adriana Villa A. and Ben Fredericson for the images above.
tags: canonical replaygain capitalisation gapless multidisc

The Music Library Management blog

Dan Gravell

I'm Dan, the founder and programmer of bliss. I write bliss to solve my own problems with my digital music collection.