iTunes Playlist Woes

If you are like me, you may have more music files than you can listen to in a day. If you are worse than me, you may have more music files than you can listen to in a year. Choosing the music you want to listen do day after day, and having to manually manage those songs, is a hassle.  However, with a little work and preparation, you can build a self updating playlist in iTunes you can be satisfied with.

Step 1: Genres

Every song you burn from a CD or purchase from the iTunes store defines the genre of the tracks chosen.  If this information is not available, you have to enter the data manually. Either way, the genre defines the type of music you are listening to.  Rock, Pop, Hip Hop, Classical, or whatever someone feels 'best' defines the track.

However, I have personally found that I am not satisfied with the genre iTunes defines.  Often, it doesn't go far enough to describe the song. I have found when I rip my CDs, there are a lot of 'Pop' and 'Rock' songs defined in iTunes.

Enter our friend, the comma (,).  When I am burning a CD, I adjust the genre to make it more descriptive than simply 'Rock', etc.  If I feel there are multiple play groups that I would play a song with, I will divide the genres by commas. 

So, I start picking out genres for my songs that best describe them, and list them individually in the genre field.  For example, I have a genre group called:  '80's, Classic, Rock, Soft'.  When I want to listen to 80's music, I can create a Smart Playlist where 'Genre' 'contains' '80's'.  If I create a different playlist focused on 'Rock' music, a song with this genre will also appear in that list as well.  I recommend putting them in alphabetical order (it is not required, but it helps find the genre later on).

Let's 'Rock' the Playlist

To show how this works, I will first create a basic Smart Playlist on iTunes. I want to listen to my 'Rock' music, so on the Smart Playlist rules I will choose 'Genre', 'contains', and then type 'Rock'. Below the rules, I click the box that says Limit to 35 'items' selected by 'random'. I now have (up to) 35 randomly selected songs that contain the word 'Rock' in the genre.  Simple and easy.

However, as I look at the list of songs. Are my favorites in there? Are there songs there that I don't like very much?  (When they come on a CD, I feel obligated to rip the whole CD and not just my favorite songs.) This list is purely random and the computer has no way of knowing what I like or what I don't like. It did simply what I told it to do:  choose 35 random songs with the word Rock in the genre. To get more selective in my playlist, I have to move on to...

Step 2: Ratings

There are many who might believe that rating songs on iTunes is a waste of time.  I have personally come to like the rating system for my own playlists.  I have read articles on the web about iTunes playing higher rated songs more frequently than lower rated songs.  However, I don't carry my entire iTunes library with me on my mobile music device (unless you have the 160G iPod Classic, but even that is too small for some libraries).  So, to get more of my favorite songs on my playlists, I have to rate the songs.

It is not critical to get it right the first time.  Many times, I listen to a song and realize I like it better or worse than the rating I have given it.  I simply change the rating at that point and my playlists will update it accordingly.  If I have songs don't have ratings on them currently, that is ok.  This process will allow me to still hear unrated songs.  This way, I won't miss out on them and can rate them when I hear them later.

Create the Rated 'Rock' Playlist

So, the genre is completed and the ratings are adjusted on at least some of my favorite songs.  Now, I will sort them by how much I like each song.

I create a Playlist Folder, calling it 'Rock Rated'.  While the folder is highlighted, I create a new Smart Playlist.  Just like random Smart Playlist from before, I change the settings to 'Genre' 'contains' 'Rock'.  This time, I click the '+' button to get a new rule.  In the second rule, I change the settings to 'Rating' 'is' '5-Stars'.  Obviously, the computer will look for all of the 5-Star rated songs in the Rock genre and put them into this playlist.

As an aside, at this point I like to put a little stop-gap measure in place to try to avoid hearing the same songs over and over again.  On my 5-Star playlist, I will usually add another rule that says 'Last Played' 'is not in the last' '2' 'days'.  This way, it forces a gap between plays of the same song.

I try to keep the number of songs in each rated playlist reasonable (say, 2 to 3 songs per star rating).  In the case of my 5-Star songs, I will click the Limit box to limit it to 10 songs, selected by 'least recently played'.  Now, when I listen to the song, it gets moved to the back of the queue so I have the opportunity to listen to my other 5-Star songs before I hear this one again.

I repeat this process and create 5 more Smart Playlists.  I name them 'Rock, 5 Stars' (there's that comma again).  'Rock, 4 Stars' (etc).  In each case, I will decrease the number of songs in the list (10 5-Star songs, 8 4-Star songs, 6 3-Star songs, etc). and increase the amount of time between plays (every 2 days for 5-Star songs, every 4 days for 4-Star songs, every 8 days for 3-Star songs, etc).

The one exception is the Zero-Star Playlist.  My Zero-Star songs are most likely songs I haven't rated yet.  I usually allow 5 Zero-Star songs (click just to the left of a 1-Star rating to get 0-Stars) just in case I missed a few of my favorites.

If I truly want to eliminate songs, I simply uncheck the song and check the box 'Match only checked items' on my Playlist.  This will eliminate those songs from ever appearing on the playlist.

Now I have a directory of Smart Playlists, but not a single 'Rock' playlist.  To make it a useable playlist, I need to create one more Smart Playlist.  I will call this one 'Rock Music.'  In the rules section, I change the rule to 'Playlist' 'is' and then scroll to my 'Rock Rated' Playlist Directory.  This will put all of my individually rated playlists into a single playlist which, by design, also has 35 songs in it. (10 + 8 + 6 + 4 + 2 + 5).  From day to day, this number may vary.   Sometimes I don't have enough 5-Star songs, for example.  The delay between appearances can also shrink the number of songs in a single rated playlist.  


Now, I have a 'Rock Music' playlist that is controlled by me.  It takes some work: setting the genre, rating the songs, building the initial playlist.  However, iTunes will allow me to copy those rated playlists, so I can create similar playlists for every genre.  I control what playlists each song will show up in, as well as how frequently they are heard.  I can listen to a playlist that suits my daily mood.

The work is not completed.  I may change some song ratings from time to time.  And, occasionally I may hear a song where the genre was set incorrectly and think, 'That track doesn't belong on this playlist.'  Of course, as I add music, I will need to keep up with this genre and rating system.  This does take more time to add music to my iTunes library, but the long term benefits are mine to enjoy...