iTunes Music Library Organization Tips
Music listening methods have become very diverse, and include streaming, purchasing music digitally, physical formats such as CD, as well as the recent resurgence of vinyl. My primary listening method is purchasing music digitally, such as through the iTunes Store or Bandcamp, but a I also use streaming via Spotify as method to explore new music. This page shares some practical tips that I use to organize and manage my digital music library, which is using the new Apple Music app (i.e. the former iTunes) on my MacBook. Regardless of what software that you use, these tips can be applied in a similar manner to organize any digital music library. At first glance, some of these tips will appear to be obsessive, which is probably true, but they can be applied selectively. As I will explain further below, the application of some of these tips might also help transform your music listening experience.
Tip #1: Consolidate the Genres
The larger a digital music library becomes, some find it overwhelming just to browse through their music, and understand and manage what they have. When you buy music online or rip a CD into your library, a default genre is assigned, which some users do not change. As a result, some music libraries will easily exceed more than a dozen different genres, which might be challenging to browse. Another common issue is that different albums from the same artist might be assigned different default genres.
One of the first organization tips to consider is simplifying your library by consolidating and minimizing the number of genres. Almost all music library software, such as the new Apple Music app (i.e. the former iTunes), allows you to change the genre for any album or song, and you can even create your own custom genre names. Shown to the left below is an example of an Apple Music library that has a dozen different default genres. Shown to the right is an example after consolidating it down to five genres, which actually are the genres that I use in my own library.
Before genre consolidation
After genre consolidation
Obviously, these consolidated genres are not a reflection of a limited music preference, but instead they are used as very broad genres names, which you have the flexibility to choose and customize. From a genre perspective, simply use the principle of the lowest common denominator, and consolidate any sub-genres into a more generalized genre name, which can even be a custom name of your choice. For example, I use the jazz genre for consolidating jazz, big band, and new age, while the rock genre serves as an extremely broad "catch-all" genre for pop, rock, alternative, metal, industrial, electronic, hip-hop, rap, etc.
This genre consolidation helps minimize the issue of having to address artists that cross sub-genres or change musical style from album to album. For example, some artists can be equally be identified as alternative, rock, pop, etc. I’ve found that using consolidated genres makes it far easier to manage a music library in the long run, and some ideas on how to effectively manage sub-genres are discussed further below.
Tip #2: Disassemble Greatest Hits Albums and Compilations
Undoubtedly, some of the music in your digital music library consists of greatest hits albums and compilations. Another organization tip to consider is disassembling or breaking these albums apart. What I mean by this is restoring and renaming the album titles of the individual songs to the original album names that they were first released with. Depending on how many greatest hits albums and compilations that you have, this may seem like a bit of effort and may also seem somewhat contrary to being a tip about organizing a music library, but there are several distinct and tangible long term benefits worth considering.
From an album artwork perspective, disassembling any greatest hits albums and compilations would add significant visual interest to your music library. With greatest hits albums and compilations, all songs have the same artwork, which is usually visually dull. After changing the songs to reflect the original album name, you would then change the album art image to the original artwork of each respective album, which will give more visual interest.
For those with a distinct interest in music history, disassembling greatest hits albums and compilations enables a greater focus on capturing historical and background information of each song and album, as well as background information on the artwork, which is discussed in another tip further below.
And lastly, you would likely start exploring and possibly adding additional songs from each respective album over time, or even filling out the entire album.
Below is a before and after example using two songs from the band Ministry. If you wanted to digitally purchase the songs “All Day” and “(Every Day Is) Halloween” today, they are available on more than one compilation album. For example, one choice would come with the album name and artwork for Twelve Inch Singles, which is shown in the example image on the left. These two songs were originally released as a 12″ vinyl single, with “All Day” as the A-side, and “(Every Day Is) Halloween” as the B-side. You would change the album title for both to All Day, the track numbers to 1 of 2 and 2 of 2, respectively. You would then change it to the original album artwork, which is shown in the example image on the right.
Album artwork from the compilation
Album artwork from the original single
Another notable example is the Led Zeppelin song “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do.” If you purchased the song in recent years, either digitally or physically, it would have been included as part of a compilation album, or the deluxe edition of the album Coda. The song was originally released as the B-side to the single of “Immigrant Song.” You would change the album title to Immigrant Song, the track number to 2 of 2, and change the album artwork to the original single. There many other examples, and you have the flexibility to change and control this. If you are concerned about retaining the song sequence from a greatest hits or compilation album, simply create a playlist before you break it apart.
Tip #3: Upgrade Your Album Artwork
Your digital music library may already contain album artwork for every song and album, so why would you want to consider upgrading and replacing some or all of the artwork in your library? The following serves as a simple side by side example of what you may not be realizing and may be missing from an image quality perspective.
The image on the left is the default artwork provided by the Apple iTunes Store. Digital music stores simply include whatever image is provided by the record label or artist, and the quality will vary wildly. Note the various imperfections, and how it even contains the compact disc logo. The replacement image on the right came from the Album Art Exchange website, which is a free crowd-based resource for high quality and high resolution album art. Obviously, some high quality images can also be found via a Google image search. Note the dramatic differences in image quality and color, and was well as content, including the black and red border and completed white circle, which are all missing from the other image.
Album artwork from Apple iTunes Store
Upgraded album artwork
Besides image quality, you may also want to simultaneously consider image size and resolution. The reason being is that the screen resolution of devices is ever increasing, and music can played through television integrated devices, such as an Apple TV, which display album artwork. As a result, you may want to consider "future proofing" the album artwork in your digital music library. Assuming that a high quality image can be found in high resolution, my preferred size to use is 1500 x 1500 pixels. If you are uncertain on what size to standardize on, simply experiment and see if you notice a visual difference on your devices.
If you are meticulous as you research and seek out the original artwork for each album and single, you are bound to encounter some predicaments. There are many albums and singles that had different artwork based on country of release, format of release, etc. The album Forever Now from the Psychedelic Furs is a good example, and the image on the left shows the original artwork for the USA, and the image on the right shows the artwork for the UK. The album Boy from U2 is another example that had different artwork based on country. There are also album covers that were banned or had censored versions. How you address any such predicament is your own personal choice.
Original album artwork for the USA release
Original album artwork for the UK release
Tip #4: Exploit the Lyrics Tab
Though the Apple Music app (i.e. the former iTunes) has a lyrics tab for each song, it is unfortunate that purchases from the iTunes store do not come populated with any lyrics. Obviously, finding lyrics is quite easy via a Google search, and they can be added to the lyrics tab via a simple copy and paste. Alternatively, there are some third party tools that automate adding lyrics, but I have never experimented with them. Some may think that manually adding lyrics to each song is obsessive, so it might be surprising that I actually take that obsession even further. I use the lyrics tab for not only lyrics, but I exploit the tab by also entering my own customized historical and background information, both for the song and the album.
Some musicians and music critics have previously expressed that the digital era has destroyed the album listening experience, and most were largely referring to their recollection of holding a 12″ album cover in their hands as the album was playing. While distracted with the nostalgia of their youth, they failed to realize the new ways that a digital music library can transform the album listening experience into entirely new realms of music appreciation. By exploiting the lyrics tab, you can revolutionize the album listening experience by including historical information, song meaning, commentary from the artist and oh yeah, the lyrics too!
The image below on the left serves as a simplistic example, as I reduced the lyrics tab to a limited amount of information for demonstration purposes. The methodology that I adopted uses three sections, which I title Album Background, Song Background, and Lyrics. In the background sections, I enter topical paragraphs with titles such as Album Release, and include information on when the album was released, how it charted, any awards, etc. Other examples of topical paragraphs include Album Background (i.e. with comments from band members), Album Title (i.e. with information on the meaning of the title), Album Packaging (i.e. with information on the design of album artwork), Song Meaning (i.e. with comments from the songwriter or band members), etc. Obviously, this is completely free-form, and I include information that is interesting to me. This type of information is readily available from websites such as Wikipedia, SongFacts, Billboard, etc. This structure then serves as a template to enter further information dynamically as you encounter it in the future. As the lyrics window can’t be resized for an adequate screen shot, the image below on the right gives you an idea of the full type of historical and background that I capture.
Lyrics tab of the Apple Music app on a Mac
Example of full background information
When a song is playing on your iPhone, it is useful and fun to have your own customized information available at the tap of your finger, such as for trivia when you are with other people. The image below on the left shows a song playing on an iPhone. When you tap on the lyrics icon on the lower left of that screen, which is highlighted by blue arrow, the custom lyrics will be displayed. The image below on the right shows the custom lyrics screen, which you can scroll up and down on your iPhone with your finger to browse the information that you previously entered.
Now Playing Screen on an iPhone
Lyrics Screen on an iPhone
Tip #5: Create a Consistent Playlist Structure Using Folders
One key tip for organizing and enjoying your digital music library is to create and use a consistent playlist structure. Devise a structure of your choice, such as with folders and sub-folders, and apply it similarly across each genre. This playlist structure will be helpful for playing your music, as well as a direct method of organizing your library. The first step is to create a folder for each genre of choice, as shown in the example on the left. Then create sub-folders under each genre, and the following is the structure that I came up with.
Albums: In this folder create a playlist for every full and complete album in you library. This is the easiest way to identify, browse, and play full albums that you own. Depending on the size of your music library, you could also chose to create another set of sub-folders for each artist, or you could choose to subdivide them by studio albums, live albums, etc.
Artists: In this folder, create a playlist for each artist. This will serve as your own greatest hits for that artist. There are probably a number of artists where you own individual songs, but not complete albums. You can add some or all of the songs. I use four songs as the minimum threshold, so once I own four songs by an artist, I will usually create an artist playlist.
Chronologies: In this folder create a playlist for each artist that you own multiple albums from, and this would serve a easy method to play all of the albums or a discography of that artist.
Subgenres: The primary purpose of this folder is more for organization, where you can divide and categorize your library into playlists for various subgenres, like metal, industrial, classic, pop, etc. When songs fit into multiple sub-genres, you can easily add them to multiple subgenre playlists.
Playlists: This folder is for any tailored playlists that you want to create, such as any theme or purpose oriented playlists.
With a playlist structure similar to this, you can have a streamlined and tailored way of delving into your digital music library, as well as keeping it organized. The next tip will show you how to use ratings as a method of tracking their progress of how songs are organized and integrated into your library.
Tip #6: Use Ratings as a Method to Organize
The intended purpose of the song rating capability is obvious, but the rating capability can alternately be used as a way to visually identify the status of how song has been organized and integrated into your digital music library. It can serve as a visual indication of whether the song is part of a playlist or not, and what type of playlist. The following is the rating methodology that I use as a way to organize my Apple Music app library (i.e. the former iTunes) on my MacBook.
No Rating: Nothing has been done with the song, and it has not been added to any playlists
★ One Star: I wish to keep the song, but it will not be added to any playlists (i.e. maybe a demo version)
★★ Two Star: The song is part of a playlist that is for the entire album
★★★ Three Star: The song is part of playlist dedicated to that specific artist (i.e. a greatest hits playlist)
★★★★ Four Star: The song is part of one or more playlists that groups songs into subgenres
★★★★★ Five Star: The song is part of one or more custom playlists, such a theme oriented playlists, etc.
This rating system that I use directly relates to the playlist structure outlined in the previous tip, and note that the ratings are progressive. If you are organizing from scratch, you would start out by creating playlists for entire albums, and you would rate those songs two stars. Then you would create a playlist for each artist, where you would likely use selected songs from those albums, and would rate those three stars. At this point, you could look at all songs in library, and via the ratings you could visually identify which songs are on an album playlist (i.e. two stars) and which ones are also on the artist playlist (i.e. three stars). Once you reach this point, the progression simply builds from there. If you buy a new song or album, simply apply the ratings progressively, as you add it to each playlist type.
Tip #7: Use a Temporary Genre for New Purchases
One last organization tip is to use a temporary genre, such as a custom one named “New" for any new purchases or imports of CDs. This temporary genre will serve as a holding place until you have the opportunity to update the album art, update the lyrics tab, add it to playlists, etc. Once you have completed your updates, you can then change it to the appropriate genre.
The application of all of these tips might be too obsessive for some, but they could easily be selectively applied. If you look back at them from the beginning, you might have noticed that there is a subtle logic to the order that they are listed, and there is sort of a progression. Depending on which of the tips you chose to apply, you could easily develop your own process and methodology. I’ve found that the application these tips transformed my own music listening experience, and it might similarly do the same for you. I’m genuinely interested in your feedback, comments, and any other tips that you have!