How to manage iTunes library: manage large libraries and create smarter playlists for your iPod and iPhone

iTunes: Apple's free music manager so many people seem to hate...?
iTunes: Apple's free music manager so many people seem to hate...?

iTunes: perhaps one of the most hotly debated pieces of software. If, for some reason, you have been spending your days living under a rock: iTunes is Apple's free music manager for Mac OS X and Windows.

Many people out there hate Apple iTunes because it is said to be slow, bloated and forced down your throat. If you own the (still!) awesome iPod Classic or an iPhone you have no choice. iTunes is your music management software, like it or not. In this article I will show you why that's perhaps not such a bad deal afterall.

I love my iPod Classic. I have owned my 80 GB model for many years now and I use it every day. I still haven't managed to grow my music library to such proportions that my iPod cannot handle it anymore and that is just awesome. The first thing I do when I get into my car is hook it up and off I go, always carrying around my entire media library. At work and need to really concentrate for a few hours? iPod.

Most people nowadays seem to want their smartphone to double up as music player, but it just isn't the same: unless you own an iPhone you lose the ease of use of the iPod. What good is having your entire music library with you if you cannot easily access it? In any case, that battery will drain even faster than it already is... and good luck with getting enough storage. The whole point is the ability to carry around your entire music library.

Anyway, I am ranting. I'll stop. I like iTunes. And I believe many of the haters simply aren't using this music manager properly, are not getting the most out of it.

In this article I will explain how I use iTunes to set up my iPod so that it always plays the songs that suit my particular mood or special occasion, without the need to spend more time skipping songs than actually playing them...

Your music library

Let's start with the basics, your music library. Here's the rules I live by.

1. Keep your media library clean
There is probably a middle ground somewhere, but I personally only add songs to my iTunes music library that I have approved as 'worthy' to listen to. That means I actually sample every song (in a program other than iTunes) to make sure that I actually like it and that it is of good quality (complete, properly encoded, no static, skips or hisses). I also ensure that the various tags are set correctly & consistently. That also means empyting tags that I don't use. Only then it will end up in my iTunes music library. I feel that is the only way to go: if you just randomly add songs to your iPod, you just end up with poor quality music, messed up tags etc., which make searching for specific songs & building smart playlists problematic.

2. Don't use every tag
There are so many tags you could fill in for each and every song if you wanted to. But you don't have to, you are not a librarian afterall. Stick to the tags you think are worth filling in and stick to that consistently.

Apart from song title and artist, you will probably want to fill in album artist, album name and track number. Disc number as well if your album consists of multiple discs. I personally try to fill in year as well because it helps with my smart playlists, but I have become a bit lazy recently. It can help with smart playlists, but I am just not sure if it is worth the effort of looking up the year or release when it is missing. In any case, I have better things to do than figure out who the composer is, work out the BPM or hunt down song lyrics.

Remember: empty the tags you don't want to use.

3. Have iTunes manage your music library
By default, iTunes allows you to store your music wherever you like. It is also not picky about whatever you decided to call your files. Great... or is it? Didn't I just add this song to my iTunes media library? So I no longer have to keep it stored here, right? Wrong. Typo in the file name, let's change that? Wrong. If you rename, move or delete your music file, iTunes won't be able to find it anymore. Luckily, you can change that default behaviour.

Once I drag a music file into my iTunes music library, I hand over control to iTunes. I don't go messing with the file directly, I only edit the tags from within iTunes. I don't want to concern myself with the file name, because frankly, I don't care (that's what the tags are for). I also don't care where the file is stored, I just want to make sure that it is safe and in a dedicated location, so I can't accidentally delete it.

If that sounds like you too:

  • click Edit -> Preferences in the menu.
  • click the Advanced tab.
  • pick a folder on your harddisk where you would like to have your music stored or just leave the pre-selected one.
  • check Keep iTunes Media folder organized, giving iTunes control over how your files are organized and named.
  • check Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library, to ensure iTunes stores all your music in the media folder you specified.

Now, whenever you drag & drop your music files into your iTunes library, you can just go ahead and delete it from their original location. And if you ever need direct access to your music files, just go to your iTunes media folder: iTunes keeps every file organized by artist & album for you, automatically.

4. Keep albums and 'stray' songs separate

If you are like me, the bulk of your music collection consists of complete albums. It sure is nice isn't it, all these album covers? But... there are some real stinkers too. Do you really want to add an album you loathe apart from one good song? What if it has only been released as a single or it is some special edition never included on any album?

If you add individual songs to your iTunes music library, you will quickly find your album view messed up with lots of unsightly "Unknown Albums". On the iPod it is even worse: if you scroll through your list of artists looking for a nice album to play, the artists of the single songs are also listed. Making your list unnecessarily long. There is a solution, albeit a bit of a hack.

For every single song, check part of a compilation. Next, give them all either 1 album name, for example: #UnknownAlbum. This accomplishes two things: all the single songs are grouped into 1 album in album view and on your iPod, your artists view is no longer cluttered with the artists from the single songs. If you really like Bryan Adams and have a few albums and a few stray songs, they will still be listed there as well. Perfect!


Here's a list of genres I decided upon:

  • Pop
    Basically just anything that doesn't fit better in any of the other genres.
  • Rock
    Hard rock baby! That's not Coldplay, you know...
  • Hip Hop
    This is mostly rap in my case, like NAS & The Game. I decided to go with the broader Hip Hop because I have also got Kanye West in there and I'd hardly call that rap...
  • Dance
    Mostly popular dance songs in their radio edit.
  • Club
    This is basically dance music as well, but the longer club versions or the songs without lyrics (pumped up background music).
  • Instrumental
    This genre houses my classical music and also synthesizer (I know, I know...)


Genres

Genres serve as a very useful way to broadly categorize your music library. Here are the rules I live by.

1. Don't worry about 'getting it right'.
Ever tried looking up a complete list of music genres? There's hundreds, perhaps even thousands of them. Many of them are fusions of two or more. Also, ask ten people to classify the same song and you will probably get ten different answers. How are you ever going to categorize your media library properly?

The answer is very simple: don't worry about 'getting it right'. It is not an exact science and you are not being judged, there is no right or wrong. If rock has a particular meaning to you and the song sounds like rock to you, then rock it is!

2. Limit the number of genres you use to categorize your music.
Genres should make it easier for you to pick the type of music that suits your particular mood. If you have only a handful of songs that fall in a particular genre, then it probably makes more sense to think of a broader genre that fits more songs. For example hard rock, instead of thrash metal. However, if you are an avid rock listener, the vast majority of your music would probably fall into the rock genre. In your case, to prevent having pretty much every song in the same genre, it may make sense to opt instead for punk, heavy metal and using rock only for everything else.

Again, don't overdo it. Whenever you are in doubt and can't seem to pick which genre is fitting for a particular song, you probably need to broaden up your genre.

I personally use dance and club to distinguish between popular, radio-friendly dance songs and more authentic dance songs (usually longer & without lyrics) played in clubs. There's hip hop, rock & soundtrack, where rock is limited to hard rock and hip hop limited to rap. And for convenience, instead of pop I use pop classics (70's and down), pop 80s, pop 90s, pop 00s and pop 10s, which in my case means that every genre hold about the same amount of songs.

When in doubt, I put things under any of the pop genres. For example, when I am in the mood for some real rock music, in my case Queen, Alanis Morrissette or Lenny Kravitz does not come to mind: it is therefore not in rock but in pop 90s & pop 00s.

Keywords

I misuse the grouping tag to hold various keywords that I use for my smart playlists. I don't know why exactly: I could have also picked composer or comments. The point is, misusing a tag you don't use can really help if you'd like to store non-standard information.

For example, my music collection contains songs in English, Dutch, German, Italian & French. I put this in the grouping tag, so when combined with the genre I might for example build a smart playlist with German hip hop or French pop songs from the 90s.

You could also use this approach if you are in need of a sort of subgenre: I put lounge in the grouping tag for songs that I really like to space out with it, regardless of the genre. Or how about this one: maybe I'd like to remember which are the favourite songs of my girlfriend, to surprise her with on a special evening. I simply add her name to the grouping tag.

This is only limited by your imagination and can be combined in infinite ways, just separate your keywords with a space, for example lounge girlfriend french, which might be a song I like to space out with, happens to be a song my girlfriend really likes and is sung in French.

Obviously you could misuse another unused tag as well.

Please note that in some cases probably a regular (manual) playlist would make more sense, like when you are trying to remember the favourite songs of your girlfriend.


Here's my ratings system:

  • 1 Star
    God, I hate this song! The only reason I haven't summarily deleted it is because I would like to keep my album complete & intact...
  • 2 Stars
    Songs I wouldn't mind hearing from time to time, but don't exactly love.
  • 3 Stars
    Good song. Not great, but good.
  • 4 Stars
    Love it!
  • 5 Stars
    Exceptionally good. I have very few of those. The very best.


Ratings

The great thing about having a 80 GB or even 160 GB iPod in your hands? You don't have to be picky anymore! Obviously it makes no sense to put music on your iPod that you loathe, but what about the 'grey area', music that you may not want to listen to regularly but would certainly appreciate hearing every now and then.

Or perhaps you would like to keep your album complete, but some songs are just so bad that you never want to hear them again.

You can use ratings to distinguish the absolutely amazing songs from the good, the okay, the mediocre and the plain bad.

Plus, you can change the rating on the go, so adjust as needed. I do that all the time, I dial down amazing songs to merely good and you know what? That mediocre song is actually quite good... one extra star.

Obviously, you will have to work out a scale for yourself to rate your songs. It is not as easy as it looks: is this 3-star song really just as good as that other one? What about a 3-star rock song, is it as good as a 3-star dance song? I personally give every good song a 3-star rating: these are the songs I don't mind hearing regularly in a shuffle. I do this relative to the genre the song is in: I cannot possibly consider a 3-star dance song with bubblegum lyrics to be just as good as a 3-star pop song with really great lyrics, but then again... in the company of the other bubblegum dance songs, this one is pretty good!

4-star songs are particularly good songs, that I probably want to quickly find and specifically target. 5-star songs are extremely rare in my collection, there's maybe only 10 songs with that number of stars. My all time favourites. On the other side of the scale, 2 stars is reserved for songs that I only want to hear occasionally and 1-star songs are awful. I only keep a few of them because they happen to complete the album, but I never play them.

Smart playlists

So you did all this hard work, keeping your music library clean, filling the tags, adding genre information and rating your songs... are you ready to reap the rewards? Enter smart playlists!

Smart playlists are amazing. In contrast to regular playlists, where you have to manually pick the songs you would like to include, smart playlists work with rules. You could specify that you would only like to hear rock songs, released between 2001 and 2010, with 3 or more stars.

Or what about pop songs, added to your music library in the last 6 months, with 3 or more stars, have received the nod of approval by your girlfriend, sung in Dutch and oh... only songs that you haven't played recently, say in the last 2 weeks or so. With smart playlists, you can do just that:

  • click 'File' -> 'New Smart Playlist' from the menu.
  • in the window, specify the rules you would like to use.

To help you get started, I added a screenshot of my 3+ Rock smart playlist. This is sort of like a smarter version of the songs I get when I shuffle playing songs from the rock genre on my iPod: I don't like hearing the same songs over and over again and I only want to hear the 'good stuff'. So, I specified that only songs should be played that I placed under the rock genre. They ought to be 3 stars or up. I don't want songs that I have already listened to in the last 21 days. And if I skipped them in the last 21 days, I probably don't want to listen to them now either.

Last but not least, I told it to do live updating. It is not without its quirks, but for example if I skip a song 2 - 30 seconds into it, my iPod will correctly register it as skipped and it won't bother playing it again in the 21 days I specified.

My 3+ Rock smart playlist.
My 3+ Rock smart playlist.

It takes a little practise to get the most out of your smart playlists, but they are very powerful. Basically you start out with the criteria, such as genre or rating and then specify the one you want, the one you don't want or a range of options (this is criteria-specific).

For example, if I pick genre as criteria, instead of naming a specific one, I could also specify that it is enough if part of what I typed is in the genre. If I want to listen to my pop music, regardless of era, I could specify genre contains pop. It would then match every song for which I specificied the genre to be pop classics, pop 80s, etc.

I have a lot of smart playlists. If you need any inspiration:

  • 2+, 3+ and 4+ (for every genre)
    Sometimes I only want the best of the best, other times I like a little more diversity.
  • dream dance and hard dance playlists
    Two of my favourite subgenres of my 'dance' genre (stored in the grouping tag as a keyword).
  • name of my girlfriend
    a playlist with the songs I know my girlfriend likes (with the name of my girlfriend as a keyword in the grouping tag).
  • 2+, 3+ and 4+ radio
    Spanning multiple genres (but excluding some of them), the best mainstream songs on my iPod.
  • most played
  • never played
  • recently added
  • recently modified.

Apart from the obvious rules, like genre or rating, there are a few worth mentioning:

  • last played, last skipped, play count, skip count
    The first two are dates when you last played or skipped the song. You could specify the number of days of either occurring or not occurring. Or if that's more to your fancy, specificy a total number of times you have either played or skipped the song.
  • date added, date modified
    V
    ery powerful if you are interested in your latest additions or modifications, as you can quickly lose track with so much music...

In conclusion

I hope this article has helped you make better use of iTunes. Who knows, if you were a hater... perhaps I have made you reconsider? Perhaps iTunes is not such a bad free music manager afterall?

Please feel free to add your own tips & tricks in the comments. And if you really need to rant about how awful iTunes is, well go right ahead too :)

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Comments 2 comments

wrypatch profile image

wrypatch 6 years ago from Virginia

Great hub. I've certainly found iTunes' better features to be far too subtle to stumble across unless you're actively looking. Thanks for the tips.


willvanderberg profile image

willvanderberg 6 years ago Author

You're welcome. If you do stumble upon a hidden gem in iTunes that I may have missed, do let me know.

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