Why You Should Be Using Smart Playlists in iTunes and How to Do It, Part 1

I’m a geek. That means i like to organize techy stuff so that it does cool things. This is one of those things i’ve gotten pretty good at, and i want to share what i’ve learned with you.

I have 28 Smart Playlists set up in iTunes. There are also several Smart Playlists that iTunes sets up automatically, but i mostly don’t use those. I also have 23 regular (non-smart) playlists. I’ll explain how and why to use regular vs smart playlists, and what reasons you might have to make use of both for different purposes.

There is a lot of hate towards iTunes. Some of it is even justified. I think Apple made a serious error in combining owned personal music with their streaming platform Apple Music. It gets very complex and confusing trying to make playlists when you are dealing with owned files and streaming music. In addition, the combination of iTunes Match, Apple Music and your personally owned music files has resulted in people accidentally deleting their own personally owned files. iTunes as it currently exists is bloated and confusing. However, in spite of that, iTunes is very powerful and useful, once you can wrap your fingers around its intricacies. That’s what this post is for.

According to Apple. The average iTunes user has between 2,000 and 3,000 songs in iTunes. There are music collectors/aficionados who have well in excess of 100,000 songs. I have right now, 13,768 songs. iTunes can effectively handle each of these sized music libraries when disk space is sufficient.

Examples Of The Kinds Of Things Smart Playlists Can Do

I have several Smart Playlists which i’ll use here as an example of the kinds of things you can do once you start down this path. I will show you how to actually create these Smart Playlists in Part 2 of this post. For now, these are examples of the kinds of things you can do.

Memories – This playlist plays only rock songs released between 1966 and 1980 and that i’ve rated as 4 or 5 stars. Basically, this plays my favorite songs between when i was in junior high and when i got married. That’s the age when we form our most intense musical attachments. These songs will always bring a warmth to my heart when i here them. In order to create a Smart Playlist like this you will need to rate your music, assign genres to all your music and also correct the date of the music. By default, almost every song is dated the day it was released in its most current form, not the date it was originally released. As an example, songs by The Monkees show up as dated 2011 when they were remastered by Rhino and not 1966-1968 when they were actually released. To make a playlist like this work, you will need to google each of your albums to find the original release date. I’ve found wikipedia the best place in general to get this information most of the time. This can be a daunting task when you have thousands of tracks, but is easy to do each time you purchase or rip a song.

CSN&Y – My goal for this Smart Playlist was to have a playlist with songs by every permutation containing one of these 4 musicians and only songs i’ve rated 4 or 5 stars. This is more difficult to construct than you might think, because these 4 guys have produced music in an almost infinite combination. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but not by much. The Smart Playlist must have an entry for each permutation. This includes: Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Crosby Stills & Nash, Crosby & Nash, Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Manassas, The Hollies, and The Au Go-Go Singers. In case you are wondering why not just include every artist containing Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young – such an entry would get you songs by Bing Crosby, Lester Young and others. Keeping the Smart Playlist to just these 4 guys took a while and some tweaking.

Summer Music – This wasn’t as hard as CSN&Y, but i took a different approach. I wanted only songs rated 4 or 5 stars, but I wanted songs by The Beach Boys, Bob Marley, The Ventures, and Jimmy Buffett. In addition there is one particular John Denver album (An Evening with John Denver) which has summer memories for me. I also wanted to include the single song Summer Breeze by Seals & Crofts and the single song Summer’s Here by James Taylor.

I’ll show you how to actually create these and other Smart Playlists in Part 2 of this blog post.

Regular Playlists

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 2.57.21 PMiTunes allows you to set regular playlists by clicking on File -> New -> Playlist. You then give your new playlist a name. Once you’ve done that, you can put any songs you want into that playlist by dragging and dropping them or by my preferred method, right clicking on a song or group of songs and selecting the ‘add to playlist’ option and choosing any playlist from the list. The regular playlist is most useful for setting up specific playlists which don’t lend themselves to characteristics or data available for automatic selection. For example, i have a playlist set up for Romance which has hand selected songs which cross genre lines and other criteria. On the left is a screen capture of my Regular Playlists. You can place any song, regardless of genre, rating, artist or any other criteria into a regular playlist. The positive aspect of regular playlists is that they are easy to set up and populate. The negative is that they are static. They don’t change no matter how many times a song is played, and they must be manually updated when you get new music you want to add or tire of old music and want to remove some songs.

Smart Playlists

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 6.09.11 PMSmart Playlists are where the power is. Smart Playlists can change automatically and dynamically as songs are playing and when songs are added to iTunes. You have the ability to have songs automatically added to a Smart Playlist based on all of these criteria to the left. And best of all, you can combine these criteria in many ways to both include and exclude songs from your playlist.

Organizing Your Music Collection

Ok. I know that most of you are not going to like this. Please keep reading anyway. Organizing your song data sounds like work, but the benefits are so significant that it is very much worth the time it may take.

Most people just throw everything they buy or rip into iTunes and then when they want to listen to some music, they select an artist or an album to play and skip songs that pop up which they don’t like. There is a better way, but it involves doing more than just putting music into iTunes. In order to be able to manipulate your music into and out of smart playlists, you need to add or modify some data about your songs.

Data to add to your music:  genre, rating, release date

Genre – Most music comes with a pre-assigned genre from whatever source you obtain the songs. I have two caveats. Sometimes the song genre is wrong (this happens most prevalently with artists who cross genres such as Van Morrison). More often than wrong genres are genres which are not useful to you. I suggest deciding on 5 to 10 genres that you personally want to use for your music as a way to sort and build playlists, then changing your music’s genres to be in one of those genres you’ve chosen. I tend toward broad rather than narrow genres. For instance, in Jazz there are many sub-genres such as vocal jazz, smooth jazz, swing, big band, bebop, dixieland, and many many more. I set all of my jazz music to either Jazz or Big Band because i’ve used those two genres to set up playlists. Blues can have many sub genres, but i just use Blues. I also use the genres: Classical, R&B, Folk, Rock, Christmas, Country, and Gospel (which i use for all Christian types of music from Gregorian Chant to Gospel Quartets to Contemporary Christian). Your choice of genres may be very different than mine. The key is to narrow the genres down to just ones which you find useful for setting up playlists.

Rating – I’m sure you noticed in my examples above that i often only include songs in a playlist which i’ve rated as 4 stars or 5 stars. In order to be able to do this, you will need to rate all your songs. The easiest time to do this is when you first add a song or album. However, you will notice over time that how you feel about a song may change, so feel free to change your ratings up or down for a particular song at any time. If you are using Smart Playlists, they will automatically adjust whenever you change anything about a song (its genre, rating, date, etc). I rate every single song i have, and yes, this can be tedious the first time. Please do not be reluctant to rate songs you really hate. If you are like me, you have a built in resistance to rating a song as 1 star. Get over it. For ratings to work, they have to be realistic.

For me, a 1 star song is one i will never want to listen to again. I have a Smart Playlist set up for 1 star songs. A few months after rating something 1 star, i go back to that playlist and re-listen to each song, at least enough of it to confirm i still hate it. I then delete any song i still hate. Each song with a 1 star rating will either get deleted or have its rating changed upward. Therefore, my 1 star playlist is a temporary holding spot.

I use 2 stars as a rating for things that i never want to have in a Smart Playlist. For instance, I have a regular playlist made up of songs that i use to help me fall asleep or sleep when i am in pain. Those songs are not ones i want to ever play while doing other things. So, i don’t want to delete them, but i don’t want them in any of my other playlists, so i make them 2 stars.

Songs i rate 3 stars are songs which i don’t mind hearing once in a while, like every 6 months or year or so, but songs that i’m not really excited about.

Songs which i rate 4 stars are those i enjoy listening to and never mind how often they may pop up, but usually that’s every few months.

5 star songs are those that get me very excited, make me feel happy, and songs i wouldn’t mind hearing every few days.

In my music collection, about 50% are rated 3 stars, 30% are rated 4 stars and 20% are rated 5 stars.

Release Date – When i say “release date” i’m only interested in the year. I haven’t found any use for knowing the exact date of a song’s release. By default, almost every song is dated the day it was released in its most current form, not the date it was originally released. You will need to use google and wikipedia to get the correct release dates. If you want to use release dates in your Smart Playlists like i do above in my Memories playlist, then you will need to correct their dates. The albums which always need this done are Greatest Hits albums. You may need to google each individual song to find its release date. Often the original release date will be in the album booklet of the CD. If not, then you’ll need to google each song.

Part 2 of this post will contain actual “How To” construct these playlists.

I’ll add a link here when it’s ready.

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