How To Organize Your Music - Part 1

As promised in my post on Tuesday, “How Much Music Is Enough?,” this is the first part of a multi-part series called “How To Organize Your Music.” I have a ton of thoughts about this, and hope you can take away some great tips for taking control of your iTunes library and using it to its full potential.

This first segment is subtitled “How To Rate EVERYTHING.” Check it out below.

How to Rate Everything

The first super-important step to getting your music under control (whether your library contains 150, 1500, or even [like mine] 15,000+ songs) is to, you guessed it, rate everything.

Every last song.

First, recognize that this is going to take some time and a lot of effort, but it is so worth it. The feeling of scrolling through your library and seeing a ton of stars is awesome. Once you’ve done it - once you’ve rated every last track - adding new music is a breeze. Rating and categorizing becomes automatic. It’s part of your routine. But getting caught up is the hard part.

What Makes A 5-Star Song?

The single most important thing is to know what your ratings mean. If you waffle on this, you are finished. Decide what each star means, and stick to it. Trust me - this can be a deal-breaker.

Here, for reference and reflection, is what my ratings mean:

1 Star
I award a single star to every song that needs to be deleted or re-downloaded. I award it to duplicates, sound effects, holiday music (which also gets tagged with an identical genre), television theme songs, and related tracks that I only want played when I ask specifically for them. Since you can’t remove songs from your library by deleting them within playlists, giving them a 1-star rating lets you easily find them in your main library and kick them out for good. EDIT: Actually, you can do this. On a Mac, just hold down Option and press Delete. I figured this out several months back, but commenter Richard brought it to my attention as it pertained to this post. In any case, everything else I said is still relevant.

2 Stars
This is my least-used rating, but it does come in handy. For the most part, songs with two stars are the very short filler tracks that seem to pop up on a ton of albums these days. Naturally, these tracks are distracting on most occassions, but have their place, for example, if I want to listen to the entire album. I also use two stars for bad music. Why not delete these tracks, then? Well, because it’s not worth my time or energy, for one. It’s also cheaper, in the long run, to keep things than to delete them, as digital space gets less and less pricy. There’s also the off chance that I might need these awful tracks - for sharing with a friend, playing at an “awful music” party, or creating a mix for an evil ex, to mention a few possibilities. Better to have them all in one place so they don’t pop up unexpectedly, but can be used as a weapon if necessary. (And oh yes, Musical Theatre gets two stars.)

3 Stars
These songs make up the meat of my collection, but are closely rivaled in quantity by the 4-star tracks. I give out the 3-star rating to the mediocre tracks, the vast majority of my classical collection (except the great ones that receive more stars), and many of the “weird-but-important” tunes that make up my library. Three-star songs are songs that might deserve another listen-through and could potentially be boosted a level from time to time. Where a 4-star rating all but guarantees placement on my iPod, I’ll occassionally let some of these guys through for the hell of it, but almost never include them in party mixes. Additionally, I give 3-stars to some good tunes that just happen to be way too long (like 15 minutes or more), because they’re typically deadly for parties, and even deadlier in terms of filesize when filling your mp3 player.

4 Stars
If a track gets four stars, that means it is a winner, a song that I like to listen to. As simple as that - these are the tracks that I would keep if someone were to hold a gun to my head and force me to delete 10,000 tracks. The 4-star rating is pretty much the top rating I award (except as mentioned below). If I like it, it gets 4. These songs are the ones I use to make smart playlists for my iPod and for general listening. Not 4 stars - no deal. This is definitely the easiest category to populate. You know which tracks deserve this.

5 Stars
If four stars is the best, what about five stars? Well, five star songs can’t really be described, but everyone knows what they are. These are songs that, the minute they come on, get you excited. Like really excited. The songs you have strong feelings for because they remind you of moments in your life. Five-star songs are four-star songs that have transcended. They’re just special, and you would never think of going anywhere without them. Five-star songs make you cry, make you sing out loud, make you do generally crazy shit. These songs rock (even if they can be a little embarrassing from time to time). I typically shy away from using these songs in party mixes because sometimes things can get a little complicated and personal.

So that’s my system. Feel free to modify it for your uses, or tell me about your own system in the comments. As long as you have some relatively strict way to rate, you’re set.

Moving on, at last.

Rate Those Tunes Now

Now that you have your system set up, immediately check out your “Top 25 Most Played” playlist and rate all of them. Unless you mistakenly left iTunes on single-track repeat while you were gone for the weekend, you already know all of these songs very well, and know what they deserve. If a song on this list doesn’t get at least 4 stars, that would be weird.

Done? Good.

Now, take an hour (or half-hour, or three hours) and scroll through your library and rate things that jump out at you. Don’t stop to think for a second. Just breeze through, catching the albums that you catch, and give the tracks quick ratings. Again, the stuff you see will most likely be stuff you like, so don’t worry if you feel like you’re giving out a ton of stars.

The point is to find the good stuff, after all.

What I find helpful, after this once over, is to sort your library by date added, and make a new playlist with a ton of the most recent albums you’ve added (this works best with full albums, rather than individual tracks). I then stick this entire list on my iPod. The goal is to listen album by album, and rate every single track in that album. I do this on my morning and evening commute, and it has worked really well. You don’t have to listen to each song in its entirety (I sure don’t, but you’re welcome to), but just enough of it to give it a rating, depending on the amount of time you have and your degree of interest. The important thing is to stick with the album - no switching in the middle! And every time you sync your iPod, delete all the albums that have been rated from this playlist, and keep it up until your iPod is totally empty. Then rinse, refill, and repeat.

One super-quick tip if you have a Mac (sorry Windows-users): Get Quicksilver. Install the iTunes plugin. Set up keyboard shortcuts for, minimally, Play/Pause, Next Track, Previous Track, and 1-star, 2-stars, 3-stars, 4-stars, and 5-stars (I use Option+Command+# to rate). This way you can control your tunes and rate tracks without leaving your current application. Don’t hesitate - do it. You’ll be glad you did.

Okay, Stop Reading and Get Rating

I think this about does it for now. I don’t want to bog you down with too much all at once. Hopefully this is enough to get started. I would love to hear your feedback in the comments, and any tips you might have for the other readers as well. What works for you? What doesn’t?

In my next post in this series, I’ll get more into specifics of playlist construction and other things that will help you continue to rate and sort your library effectively.

Remember, the ratings you award (and life itself, after all) are impermanent. You’ll want to change things over time, but give yourself this time. Don’t get too hung up on details initially. Just get it done. And enjoy the music.

Added Part 2 here!
And Part 3 here.