The Joy of iTunes: Library Organization

Let’s assume for a moment that you are a wealthy collector of antiquities. Over the years, you’ve collected literally thousands of relics from various eras, countries and artists. It’s a large collection, representing your varied tastes and moods, and you’re inordinately proud of it.

At some point, however, it grows so large that you’re not quite sure where to find your favorite pieces. You sift through the storage bins looking for those items that stand out from the rest, those that most accurately reflect your present mood, but have a hard time always finding them. Some fade from memory altogether, and are rediscovered by complete chance.

You finally concede that you ought to organize this mess, but you’re not quite sure exactly how it ought to be organized.

Now, replace “relics” with “songs” and “storage bin” with “iPod,” and you begin to see the parallel with your iTunes music library. Sure, you’ve got a pile of music, but how do you go about finding the best of it? How do you go about filtering out the worst of it? How do you associate “Radiohead” with “Rachmaninoff” and “George Winston” with “George Clinton”? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you make sure you never get bored with your vast collection of music?

First, roll up your sleeves; grab a cup of coffee if you like. Then, sharpen your eyes & ears. There’s rating and categorization to be done.

Just How Good Is It?

*The most important, most fundamental element of any good iTunes library is song rating.* Without it, you might as well declare that you like _all_ of your music _equally_ well; which, you and I both know, is complete nonsense. There are songs in every collection that stand out from the rest. So rate them, and get it over with.

It’s as easy as assigning the number of stars you think the song deserves. Think it’s the best thing you’ve ever heard? Give it five stars. Think it’s a great song, worthy of future listening? Give it four stars. Think it’s an _okay_ song that shouldn’t necessarily be deleted, but may prove useful as background music at a future dinner party with your awkward and obnoxious uncle Earl who actually likes this sort of music? Give it three stars. Think it’s vile, sonic drivel and taking up more time and space than it’s worth? Give it two stars. Think it would be better off as an instrument of torture in medieval France? Give it one star. You get the idea.

Rate songs as you listen to them, either on your iPod or using iTunes. Single out and rate your absolute favorites first, and gradually work your way back to your least favorite songs. Don’t be discouraged that it takes a while; the rewards are definitely worth the effort.

With a good handle on which songs in your library you like, and which you don’t like, you’re almost ready to begin creating your Smart Playlists. But first, let’s get a handle on how songs in your iTunes music library relate to each other.

Post-Funk Pre-Punk Hipster Classic Folk Rock

Have you ever looked at the default genre on a piece of music you’ve imported from a CD or purchased from iTunes and thought “My God, how could they have possibly labeled my favorite folk artist as Alternative & Punk?” You’re not alone. Genre, like its big brother Category, is a personal perception. What you consider Classical, I might call Baroque; what I consider Electronic, you might call Trance. It’s a personal preference.

If you’ve been grinding your teeth, cursing the blasted fool who mislabeled your favorite artists, grind no more. After all, it’s _your_ music library, and you’re free to personalize and organize it accordingly.
Start off by doing some thinking about your favorite high-level genres. Some example high-level genres:

  • Rock
  • Classical
  • Electronic
  • Blues
  • R&B
  • Soundtrack

Then think about subgenres that make sense to you. Some ideas for subgenres:

* Rock: Brit
* Rock: Folk
* Rock: Oldies
* Classical: Piano
* Classical: Cello
* Electronic: Trance
* Electronic: House

For music that fits cleanly into a high-level genre, change its genre accordingly. For music that fits more precisely into a subgenre, place it there instead. The point here is that in the end, songs in your iTunes music library should reflect your unique perception of genre.

The iTunes Subgenre Hack

You’ll notice that most of the subgenre suggestions implement a sort of iTunes hack: that is, a workaround for iTunes’ inability to assign more than one genre to an individual song. You can get around this by implementing a “High-Level Genre: Subgenre” style configuration in your iTunes music library. This becomes more important later on when we get into Smart Playlists (to be covered in The Joy of iTunes: Smart Playlists) and want to be able to group all our favorite songs by larger genres, but still want to be able to group them by their specific genres as well.

What’s All This, Then?

Our overall goal here is to get more value out of our iTunes music libraries by making it easier to find and listen to the music we like the most. In the next part in this series, we’ll get into the good bits by building on a strongly rated and genre-customized library with Smart Playlists. What’s a Smart Playlist, you ask?

Because “Flexible Container based on Search Criteria” Sucks as a Moniker

Apple uses “smart” containers in most of its flagship software. In OS X, it’s known as the Smart Folder; in iPhoto, the Smart Album; and in iTunes, the Smart Playlist. The concept boils down to this: you decide what search criteria determine the contents of the container. It sounds relatively simple, but the concept is powerful in its fundamentally different approach to information organization.

Files and Folders are Best Suited to File Cabinets

This is in contrast with the more traditional model of file and folder organization, which makes us choose the contents of a folder on a file by file basis; much like the physical world it was originally meant to represent (i.e. a literal file & folder cabinet). This choice is set in stone until you reorganize.

The problem with the file and folder metaphor is that it requires a good deal of information organization and forethought up-front; as the information and our concept of how it ought to be organized changes, the process of reorganization can be cumbersome and time consuming. You can only organize by a few key concepts at a time (say, by artist and album), and organizing by one method necessarily makes it more difficult to find it using another (e.g. by year and genre). Entire disciplines have been dedicated to optimizing this problem (Dewey Decimal System anyone?), but the issue is core to the metaphor. Finding things using this system simply gets harder as you use it more and more over time.

Smart containers solve that problem, and for our purposes, Smart Playlists solve it quite nicely.

Next in The Joy of iTunes Series

I hope you’ll enjoy the next post in *The Joy of iTunes* series:

The Joy of iTunes: Smart Playlists


  • I wonder if you could help. I have a large library and I’ve been steadily working with genres to get things right. I really like your subcategory suggestion. Recently however, I’ve noticed that when I play certain tracks, iTunes changes the genre to what it wants and also changes some other information. For example, I’ve changed the album name of a soundtrack from, “Music from and inspired by…” to just the name of the movie. iTunes is now changing things back. I have the “keep itunes organized” option selected but it’s never been a problem before. Any thoughts?

Comments are closed.