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March 13, 2006

iTunes Needs Tags not Genres

Categories Apple iTunes 

As much as I enjoy using iTunes, I'm perpetually frustrated by how to organize my music with it. To be fair, I have similar problems when I arrange CDs on a shelf or in one of those 200 CD nylon cases. My preference for browsing through music is looking at set of albums with some thematic connection. Currently the best way to do that in iTunes is by browsing by "genre." However, with so much new music crossing genres or existing squarely between two or three genres, this rarely works well (the whole notion of a music "genre" is a bit of an anachronism if you ask me). For instance you can have a genre for soundtracks and jazz and Latin, but that doesn't help at all when you come to the "Buena Vista Social Club", a soundtrack for a film about Cuban jazz. What would make much more sense is if multiple tags (or labels) could be applied to each song instead of just a single "genre."

Why bother with genres or tags at all?

The main payoff for setting genres at all is that it makes it easy to listen to a lot of similar music without creating a playlist. Setting your genres just the way you like it has everything to do with listening to your music, it's not just for the sake of organization. If you've set genres on a lot of your music, it should become really easy to match your music to the mood. So with an iTunes genre on shuffle, your computer can sound a lot more like a DJ than an indecisive deaf man (Aimee Mann followed by Dice Raw anyone?). But given how much music crosses genres, this rarely works as well as it could and just highlight the fact one genre per song just isn't sufficient.


It seems that it would be easily possible to create a plug-in for iTunes that allows multiple tags separated by a delimiter to be input into the existing genre field. However, until iTunes fully supports such a feature it seems very likely that once the song was moved to an iPod the data would be lost or useless.

The best implemenation of such a feature would involve native tagging right in iTunes. They'll need to make it easy to apply tags to music, much easier than it currently is to set a genre. And the genre's pane in the "Browser" would have to be replaced with some clever UI to navigate through tags. Tag navigation UI can be pretty tricky (if I select two tags is that an "and" or "or" relationship), but hey it's Apple, they can figure it out!


Couldn't have said it better myself. I just found out that iPods let you rate songs on the iPod and I'm in heaven. The next thought I had was - what do you mean, I can't tag my songs with multiple tags?

Genre is nice, artist is nice, Mood, sure. But I need to be able to apply multiple, personal labels to each song.

It goes without saying that this should be social - iTunes should be able to figure out what this song probably is by the artist, title, etc. and suggest tags based on what other people have tagged it.

Awesome blog. Peace out until next time TabathaOster

why not append the tag to the comment field?
this is possible on a Mac through a script, but not on Windows...

Hell, yes. This is something that would be far more important to me or anyone else who makes heavy use of a jukebox app than iTunes' coverflow. Although... you have to admit that coverflow is pretty damn cool, and has its uses. :)

I would add to the tags comment that iTunes should make use of sub-genres. A band such as 311 might be labeled rock, with sub-genres of regae, hip hop, etc. Tags could be used to further differentiate individual songs -- ie. Amber could be tagged "mellow", whereas Creatures For Awhile could be tagged "heavy". Between tags and sub-genres, it'd make it far more easy to instantly set up a playlist to suit your mood.

I agree 100%. I have been thinking about this for a long time, pretty much since i got my first ipod. and as my music collection grows, so is my frustration. for an example of a tag implementation that imo works really nicely and is both flexible and user friendly, check Adobe's Photoshop Album's concept of tags and collection. These concepts would apply really nicely to a music collection.

I noticed that the latest itunes (maybe it was there before?) has the concept of a category. but i couldn't find anything about it in the help and it does not seem that it can be edited.

This might help:

Genres can be labelled like this:

Dance: Trance
Dance: House
Dance: Trip Hop
Dance: Downtempo
Dance: Drum and Bass
Dance: Hip Hop (for dance tracks that have a hip-hop feel)

Then when creating smart playlists you can use "Genre contains" instead of "Genre is" for the whole spectrum of "Dance" or choose the specific sub-genres to narrow it down.

This can be done across multiple genres and will let you play similar tracks cross genre.

For example: Suntoucher by Groove Armada was originally tagged as "Electronica/Dance", I have retagged it as Dance: Hip Hop. If I make a smart playlist where "Genre contains Dance" it will be included. But if I want to listen to all Hip Hop style music in my collection, but not include Gangsta rap I would use "Genre contains - Hip Hop, Genre is not Hip Hop: Gangsta"

Hope that helps someone!

I fully share the frustration of the Genre limitation. I have (and use) a lot of Genres and am constantly frustrated by iTunes inability to understdand music genres. No examples - everybody has their own frustrations with lots of examples. I would offer three points, though:

1. The Genre field does not only group music for the right mood, as implied above, but the other function it fills is to locate music (in iTunes, as well as on the iPod). If I am looking for a song or an album, there are 3,098 songs to pick from or 206 albums currently in my library. But, if I know what I'm looking for is German, than that Genre contains only 18 albums. My biggest category is Celtic with 77 albums. Maybe it's not too much trouble to sift through 206 albums on a 20-inch computer screen, but I've got to be able to find things on my iPod (not to mention the Alpine head unit in my car, which displays only one single line at a time)!!!

2. Recreating every genre in smart playlists is equally problematic. I currently use 12 playlists and 16 genres. Admittedly, both lists are pretty much static, but scrolling through 12 playlists OR 16 genres on the iPods 2" screen is more pleasant than scrolling through 28 playlist entries.

3. The fix, I believe, is simple. Genres don't need to change a bit. Give us a list of genres. Let us browse music assigned to a genre. All the solutions are already there and implemented. The only thing that's missing, I think, is that iTunes needs to display Genres using an "includes" check, rather than an "equals" check. Ditto with the iPod. You could still use all the built-in browse and display functionality, and the power of the lowly genre would be magnitudes greater.


I have been havin the same problem with tags but i kinder worked around it by using Content Group field as "Genre" i.e base genre
and Genre field as "Style" ....

thus we'd have say

Content Group = Electronic
Genre = Dance
if multiple genres / styles exist
Genre = Dance/House

Apple definitely needs to get on top of this. The only way to make it happen is to ask Apple directly.

Don't forget to add other requests in your response to Apple. Here's some good food for thought on what would make iTunes better.


iPod users have been posting about this for more than 4 years. For some reason Apple won't address it. I would really like to play songs by genre on random, but because so many bands can't be pigeon holed into one genre, it's kind of pointless to do that the way things are.

An Apple kool-aid drinker friend of mine told me you can make multiple genres for a song by using a colon to seperate the different genres- for example Social Distortion would be Rock:Hard Rock:Punk. But that just created a whole new genre for Social Distortion called Rock/Hard Rock/Punk, and Social Distortion was not contained in any of those individual genres. So I told my friend that using colons doesn't assign a song to multiple genres, it just creates a new genre with multiple names. He then said "well, just make a smart playlist using 'genre contains __' and put in the names you want, for example 'genre contains hard.'" I told him that I use iTunes about two or three times a month, but use my iPod every day. I don't want to create a bunch smart playlists ahead of time so that I can pick one that I want a week from now when I am working out or going to work. He said "Well, who listens to songs by genre anyway..."

So maybe that's Apple's position. You should use iTunes all the time and therefore you should be creating smart playlists for every possible mood. I don't think this is how the majority of iPod users use their iPods though.

The odd thing is that they've already done this to iPhoto by adding "keywords".

So, if for no other reason, adding keywords to iTunes would help unify the iLife family.

While I think it will not take a lot for Apple to add some "Apple-custom" tagging labels, it will also be opening another can of worms. I think Apple is trying (to a certain extent) to follow the widely accepted MP3 tagging standards. Oh else, the way i tag a MP3 file in iTunes will be different and not "portable" once it is used in another software.

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