iTunes Zero

iTunes Zero

Inspired by Merlin Mann’s Google Talk, Inbox Zero, I’ve decided that something needs to be done about my iTunes playlists.

Just like how the way we handle email has changed, the way we organize and listen to music has changed. Today we have Smart Playlists and a rich selection of metadata. We should never have to make static playlists unless we want to for a specific purpose (organization, birthday party, sunday drive, etc).

Of course, the problem comes from taking a framework you set up years ago and figuring out the smart way to do it. People have mail folders set up for individuals because Outlook didn’t always have search folders. We also have playlists named vague terms like “Good Songs” because there was a time when using metadata was either not an option or difficult to use.

So here are some steps you can take to almost completely automate your iTunes playlists. I’ll also discuss some conventional playlists you may have and how you can replace them without needing to think about adding to them ever again.

Use Ratings

Simply rating your music will go a long way towards more efficient playlists. Don’t make a playlist of the 5 Morrissey songs you like – just rate them favorably!

By default, rating tracks is inconvenient and inefficient. You have to stop what you’re doing, go to iTunes and get to a contextual menu.

But there’s help. On the Mac there are a number of tools that assign global keyboard shortcuts to ratings. Quicksilver and SizzlingKeys are my favorites. Both are free, but I recommend Quicksilver simply because it can do much more than iTunes ratings.

On Windows there’s iTunesControl and iTunes Hotkey. I have used neither, so I encourage you Windows users to do some research and see what you like.

Before you start rating songs whatever you feel like, consider what your ratings actually mean. Ratings are pointless if you don’t have some criteria to determine how a song gets rated. Here’s what works for me:

  • 1 Star – I hate this track, but I keep it around because it has some historical significance or it’s part of an album I like.
  • 2 Stars – I don’t hate it as much as the 1 star songs, but I dislike it.
  • 3 Stars – Meh. Don’t hate it. Don’t like it.
  • 4 Stars – Hey, this song is pretty good!
  • 5 Stars – The world would be a worse place without this music. I want this playlist played at my funeral.

This rating system should work out like a bell curve. There will be a lot of 3s, less 2s and 4s, and a sparse number of 1s and 5s when your whole library is taken into consideration. The 5 star rating loses all of its power if it’s given to every song you like. Save it for the music you don’t want to live without.

After a while of using shortcut keys to rate your music you’ll find that you like some songs you never knew you did. There’s something extremely satisfying about having a fully rated library. You’ll wonder how you ever got along without ratings.

Straighten Out Your Genres and other Metadata

This is the hardest part simply because there are so many genres and no good way to define them. What’s the difference between Electronic and Electronica? And what’s the difference between Electronica and Techno? And why use Electronica instead of Electronica/Dance? What about Downtempo vs. Ambient? Do you want to classify Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell as Rock/Pop or New Wave?

These are decisions you’re going to need to make on your own depending on how specific you want to get. The reason Genres are so flaky is because there are so many options and they’re all subjective. My recommendation is to get as specific as you can. Is Iron & Wine Alternative or is it Altternative Folk? A lot of those Electronica/Dance tracks are probably Electronica or Dance, but maybe not both.

A lot of genres are available in itunes

If you want, you can create custom genres to help simplify the task. Classical music fans only get one tag – Classical. But if you’re a hardcore classical listener you could create genres like Madrigals, Baroque, Romantic, 20th Century and more. The number of genres and how specific you get will largely depend on the kind of music you listen to and the kinds of playlists you want to create.

Once in a while you should probably review your genres. Simply use the browser window with genres enabled to get a list of all the genres in your library.


p>It’s also fine to admit that your tags are a lost cause. If you need help, consider using a tool to fix your metadata like iEatBrainz for the Mac and Picard for the PC.

Use Smart Playlists

Now that you have accurate ratings and genres it’s easy to create playlists that you never need to think about.

Want to listen to good Hip-Hop? Simply create a playlist like this:

Use Smart Playlists to automatically create a genre-based favorites list

Now whenever you buy new hip-hop all you have to do is rate the music and it will automatically be added to your playlist. This example attempts to consolidate the 3 ways that iTunes tags Hip-Hop, but it’s much easier if you can define a single genre for Hip-Hop (or Hip Hop or Hip-Hop/Rap or Hip Hop/Rap, depending on if you like hyphens).

iTunes automatically creates a list of favorites

It’s easy to apply these ideas to genres, but you can do much more with your metadata, or lack thereof, including organization, decades, and playcounts:

  • No Year – A playlist where “Year” is blank – tag your files with the year it was originally released.
  • 80s Music – Tracks in the range of 1980-1989.
  • Recent Additions – Tracks added in the past 3 months.
  • Playcount = 0 – Music you need to listen to.
  • Featuring – Get music with the word “featuring” or “feat.” in the title and put those featured artists in the “Artist” tag. Use “Album Artist” to tag the name of the artist on the spine of the CD case.
  • No Album Artist – Combined with “Album to Album Artist” Applescript, this playlist is a powerful tool to make your metadata even more accurate.


p>The possibilities are endless, so think about what you listen to (or what you haven’t listened to in a long time) and the ways you can create smart playlists to take full advantage of your favorite music.


While using smart playlists will help automate your iTunes playlists, you’ll need to keep static playlists around for a few kinds of playlists.

Favorite Albums

Since ratings are track specific, there isn’t a way for a smart playlist to get a whole album. I would love for iTunes to be smart enough to figure an album’s rating based on the average rating of its tracks, taking a track’s length into account when considering how much weight it has on the album’s rating. That way, you could create a playlist of 4 star and higher albums.

If you agree, please let Apple know.

Until then, you’ll need to maintain a static playlist of your favorite albums.

EDIT: Shortly after this post was first published, Apple released iTunes 7.4. This version introduces album ratings and they work much like how it’s proposed above.


Instrumentals are a good for situations when you need something on, but you get distracted by lyrics. iTunes doesn’t have an instrumental tag, but there are two things you can do:

    <li>Keep a static playlist of instrumental music</li>
    <li>Use the "Grouping" field to identify tracks as instrumentals</li>

Neither of these options are very convenient and require you to put effort into every track in your library. Perhaps the best option is to create a static playlist of instrumentals that need to tagged as such. Then you can use Groupings and other metadata to create in-depth Smart Playlists.

Subjective and Specific Playlists

I have a playlist of sad songs (called “Rainy Days”) that would be impossible to create with smart playlists unless iTunes let you tag music the same way Last.FM does. It would be incredible if iTunes had a keyword feature like iPhoto’s for this sort of thing.

There are also a few ideas I can think of that would work wonders for smart playlists. A work safe playlist could include everything that’s not marked explicit, but iTunes does not let users assign explicit tags.

Listen Without Thinking

Like Merlin Mann’s method of keeping you from deciding where to put your email and to get you to act on it, the point of using your metadata like this is to keep yourself from maintaining playlists and help you listen to more music. The hardest part is maintaining the metadata, but using scripts and hotkeys should help you make short work of it. Using metadata will help take your playlists to 90% perfection.

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