Tagging music in iTunes

Posted on January 15, 2006

In iTunes it's possible to categorise your music using the "Genre" field. However, classifying music is notoriously difficult - the definitions differ, a piece of music may overlap several styles, no-one can agree. This exposes the problem inherent in traditional categorisation techniques ('taxonomies') - we are forced to put a piece of music into one genre. This shortcoming has been exposed by the recent explosion in popularity of tagging, which I'm sure everyone is familiar with. I'm surprised Apple has latched on to this yet, because I can't imagine it being too difficult to implement.

Anyway, I've come up with a work around... (sort of)

Use the comments field (file > get info) for tagging by entering comma-separated lists of keywords (luckily iTunes lets you batch edit the fields of multiple songs). You can then create a smart playlist (file > new smart playlist...) using one or more "comment contains" fields. By changing the "match" pulldown at the top of the smart playlist preferences window you can set whether all criteria should be met, or any.

iTunes smart playlist preferences

The keyword search result (in this case "hip hop" and "old skool") is then permanently available in the smart playlist.

iTunes smart playlist

The one draw back is that the playlists are a bit clumsy to edit. It would better if you could enter "'hip hop' + 'old skool'" into the iTunes search field, but iTunes search doesn't allow a combination of search terms. As it is, you have to edit the playlist every time you want to search for a different combination of keywords.

Like I said, I wouldn't be surprised if Apple isn't working on a tagging solultion for iTunes. Makes sense to me.

Comments (14)

bp said


Don't you mean "...I wouldn't be surprised if Apple is working on a tagging solultion..." or "...I would be surprised if Apple isn't working on a tagging solultion..."?! Makes sense to me ;)

Posted by: bp at January 15, 2006 07:29 PM .

bsn said

@bp thanks for pointing out the double negative. I'll take the former. :)

Posted by: bsn at January 15, 2006 08:05 PM .

Adam Bramwell said

You're right about the genre property being nearly useless, and tagging seems to be a great way of classifying songs.

Realistically, the tagging would have to be done as you're listening, with keyboard shortcuts. At the moment I've got a CTRL-ALT-5 shortcut setup in Winamp to rate songs 1 to 5, and perhaps to extending this would be a good plugin development idea.

Anyone know of any existing plugins for any media players that streamlines tagging / comment editing?

Posted by: Adam Bramwell at January 16, 2006 06:25 AM .

bsn said

@adam I certainly can't seem to find any for iTunes, which is the only player I use. In fact there doesn't seem to be that many plug-ins for iTunes *at all*, apart from a handful of visualisers and "currently listening to" export widgets...

Posted by: bsn at January 16, 2006 03:57 PM .

Patrick Haney said

Fairly simple idea, but a good one at that. I'm a bit surprised that iTunes, now in version 6, hasn't had any tagging built in just yet. It seems logical that people would like to listen to music tagged "party" or "working out" or even "gettin' down" (I use a custom playlist for the latter).

Sometimes I just want "angry" music, like an oldschool Metallica song or some Rage Against the Machine, for times when I'm having a bad day or when I get fired from my job for listening to Rage Against the Machine without headphones.

You know what I mean?

Posted by: Patrick Haney at January 18, 2006 07:26 PM .

bsn said

@patrick I hope you don't need the "gettin' fired" tag all that often.

Hopefully Apple will integrate tagging at some point and I'll be able to write a self-satisfied post beginning: "As I predicted way back at the beginning of 2006..."

Posted by: bsn at January 19, 2006 09:39 AM .

Chris said

Hey, guys. I made a script for OS X/Quicksilver that allows you to tag songs and create playlists on the fly with minimal interaction...give it a shot if you have both apps.


Posted by: Chris at January 19, 2006 07:29 PM .

petsounds said

The problem with using the Comments field is that the Search bar does not, for some moronic reason, use the Comments field in its searches. I wanted to use the Comments field to tag each song with the players/singers. That way if I wanted to find any song that Lou Barlow has sung on, it would be a simple search entry. Yes, you could craft something using a Smart Playlist, but that is unweildy.

As far as Apple implementing "tagging", I seriously doubt it. They have given almost no attention to updating iTunes with useful or innovative features. They only update when there's some new product they want to sell and they need to tie in with iTunes as a delivery mechanism. Apple really should put iTunes into the iLife suite. I understand development costs aren't free, and I'd be happy to pony up a little for new features. I'd especially like to see more robust media server-esque features. I'd also like to see them open up iTunes development with an SDK.

Posted by: petsounds at January 27, 2006 08:19 PM .

D said

petsounds said
"The problem with using the Comments field is that the Search bar does not, for some moronic reason, use the Comments field in its searches."

Actually it does. You have to have the Comments column turned on. Right click on the column title bar and select "Comments". Now the Search bar will filter based on comments too. (You can stick off to the far right so you don't have to look at it.)

Posted by: D at March 16, 2006 05:32 AM .

eyeRmonkey said

petsounds said

I'd also like to see them open up iTunes development with an SDK.

They have an SDK: ">http://developer.apple.com/sdk/itunescomsdk.html

Posted by: eyeRmonkey at April 10, 2006 09:00 PM .

ginckgo said

I've been using the 'keywords in the comments' workaround for several years and it works quite well, especially because it allows me to have lots of smart play lists. But it's not nice and tidy, and I've just discovered why I haven't heard Radiohead's "Knives Out" in ages - because I mistyped the keyword!

There's an easy way to fix this. Without needing to reinvent the wheel, Apple could simply implement a keyword function like in iPhoto. No idea how much programming is involved, but so many people have commented on this over the years that it would be worth Apple's efforts.

Posted by: ginckgo at July 26, 2006 04:47 AM .

luca said

I had been tagging songs by adding categories into 'genres', and created many kinds of smart playlists from them.

They work great for me and I don't quite see any particular advantage in using the 'comments' field instead!

The QuickSilver+TuneTag approach is cool, but it would be much better to step up and tag songs by Spotlight comments; this is also easily done in QuickSilver, and fits right into a system-wide taxonomy approach to file-management on osX...too bad smart-playlist are not able to check Spotlight's comment field!

Just another example of the current half-baked adoption
of tagging in OS X. It would all be in there (Spotlight, smartfolders etc), but either you ctrl-i on everything or use third-party stuff; SmartFolders to add tags in 'save as' dialogs, QuickSilver to change/edit Tags on multiple files and for reviewing your Tags-cloud...

Posted by: luca at August 3, 2006 02:39 PM .

bsn said

I suppose I see the genre field as being a single-entry field, by definition limited to genres. There are a whole load of possible tags that you wouldn't describe as a genre: "throwout?", "formum", "birthday", "classic" etc. Just me being pernickity.

Posted by: bsn at August 3, 2006 02:48 PM .

pauldwaite said

Apple hasn't really embraced keywords/tagging (delete the term you like less) in its software.

The only application I've noticed with an implementation is iPhoto's keywords, and its implementation is a bit clunky compared to the web applications (e.g. del.icio.us, Flickr) offering the functionality - much more geared towards a controlled vocabulary than more spontaneous tagging.

A chap wrote a plug-in called Keyword Assistant to make dealing with keywords in iPhoto easier: http://homepage.mac.com/kenferry/software.html

If Apple do (and I really hope they do) add a proper tagging interface to iTunes, I hope they nick this guy's UI ideas. Or better, employ him to work on it :)

Posted by: pauldwaite at August 8, 2006 06:56 PM .