Use iTunes Ratings to Create Smart Playlists

Mac|Life – All Articles
by J.R. Bookwalter

iTunes Smart Playlist

For all of its faults, iTunes is a versatile media player, allowing you to organize music in interesting ways — assuming you know how to do so in the first place. Among the built-in tools offered are Ratings and Smart Playlists, which can be used in tandem to display media in most any way you can imagine.

If you thought those Ratings in iTunes were just for marking favorite (or least favorite) tunes in your collection, think again — combined with the Smart Playlist feature, you can do all manner of interesting things beyond the realm of mere mortals.

Why Use Smart Playlists?

iTunes with Smart Playlist selected

Truthfully, we didn’t have much use for Smart Playlists prior to the debut of the first iPhone in June, 2007. Prior to that date, we had been rockin’ a black hard-drive equipped 60GB iPod (now referred to as the “iPod classic”) that deftly handled our 30GB-plus music library with ample room to spare. Unfortunately, the highest-capacity iPhone 2G at the time was a modest 8GB, which meant that more than three quarters of our iTunes library was going to get left behind — ouch! What’s a music lover to do?

Sure, one could just toss a bunch of favorite tracks into a regular ol’ playlist and sync that to your storage-deprived device, but what happens when you add new tracks in the future? Our solution was the combination of Ratings and Smart Playlists — Ratings to “tag” tracks we want to include on such limited storage, and Smart Playlists to manage them accordingly. This technique allows for dynamically updated playlists as new music is added, without manual intervention for adding tracks in the future.

Ratings and Smart Playlists, Sittin’ In a Tree

iTunes Ratings and Smart Playlists

If you don’t have the Rating column enabled in your main Music library, first head to View > View Options and make sure it’s selected, then click OK. This step isn’t required, but once you start tagging tracks this way, it’s helpful to see them at a glance when browsing.

iTunes assign Rating

You can assign a Rating in a few different ways. For individual tracks, simply click on the desired star (from one to five) in the Rating column. Quickly apply Ratings to multiple tracks by selecting them, holding down the Control key, clicking anywhere on a given track and choosing Rating from the contextual menu — that also includes None, should you want to remove a previous Rating and make it disappear from your Smart Playlist.

The next step is the most time-consuming — you actually have to decide how you’ll use these Ratings and then tag your music tracks accordingly. We’ll help you establish a couple of game plans in the next two sections, so let’s jump ahead and look at how Smart Playlists work.

How Smart Playlists Work

iTunes Edit Smart Playlist

Apple has included a few Smart Playlists with new iTunes installs by default — the playlists at the top of your Playlists category in the sidebar, denoted by a little spoked wheel. These include My Top Rated, Recently Played and Top 25 Most Played, and you can get a sense of how they operate by Control-Clicking on one and selecting “Edit Smart Playlist” from the contextual menu. (Music Videos also appear as a Smart Playlist, but to keep things simple we’re only focused on music.)

Creating a Smart Playlist is simple: Choose File > New Smart Playlist from the menu and tell iTunes the criteria by which you want to sort music according to various rules. If you’ve used Rules with the Mac OS X version of Mail.app to file or color-code your email, you already have a good idea how they work in iTunes.

The most important aspect of Smart Playlists for our purposes is to make sure the “Live updating” box is checked (it is by default). This allows iTunes to keep your Smart Playlist current as it finds matching criteria, such as when new music is added. You’ll also have the ability to limit how many items appear in a Smart Playlist or even include them based on tracks that have been checked in your library.

With all of that in mind, here are a couple of suggestions to get you started — and stay tuned, because we want to invite readers to show us how they’re making use of Ratings and Smart Playlists, too.

Separate New Music You’ll Listen to Most Often

Smart Playlist - Recent Mix

One of our favorites uses for Ratings + Smart Playlists is creating what we call a “Recent Mix” — music that we’ve purchased recently and are more likely to listen to often, at least for a while. Since this will likely include entire albums — until you decide which tracks on an album aren’t worth space on your device — select those tracks, Control-Click and assign five stars to all of them at once.

iTunes New Smart Playlist

Start a new Smart Playlist and set it up according to the options shown above. For now, be sure to match all of the rules listed, which involve separating the tracks with five-star ratings (first rule) and then eliminating non-music entries by matching Media Kind to Music only (second rule). Be sure “Live updating” is checked so the Smart Playlist will continually add new tracks whenever you five-star them and click OK.

By default, a new Smart Playlist with more than one rule will be called “untitled playlist” — you can double-click on the name to change it to whatever you’d like, but since our list is used equally on desktop iTunes as well as with iOS devices, we added an underscore to the front of the name, which keeps it pinned at the top of our Playlists sidebar.

Now, as you five-star new music in the future, all that’s left to do to maintain a “Recent Mix” playlist is to sort the tracks inside however you’d like — although this is handier for desktop iTunes, since the iPod makes it easy to jump quickly to a particular artist or album at will.

Consolidate Favorites for Tiered iOS Syncing

Smart Playlist - iPhone #1

Until Apple blesses us with cloud syncing or the iPhone comes in a 64GB (or higher) capacity, many of us will have to be content with chopping up our music collection into smaller bites when it comes time to sync. That means making some “tough love” decisions about separating the wheat from the chaff (so to speak) — some tracks will always be along for the ride in your pocket, while the rest remain at home.

That’s where Ratings comes in handy again. Since we’ve already used five stars for our newer music example above, we’ll now separate catalog favorites into two convenient lists: Four stars for “iPhone #1” (music tracks we couldn’t live without on a desert island, maybe), and three stars for “iPhone #2” (other stuff you love that will only be included where space permits). As always, what you call these Smart Playlists is up to you.

Smart Playlist - iPhone #2

The idea here is to split a giant catalog of music into two or three Smart Playlists to be used according to available space. For example, “iPhone #1” contains catalog favorites we want to include on every iOS device, while “iPhone #2” features additional tracks we’ll only sync when space allows — that older 60GB hard disk iPod that still works, or maybe a 64GB iPad or iPod touch.

You can see how we created the two Smart Playlists above, which is essentially the same as the “Recent Mix” example but changing how many stars are used in the Rating.

Show Us Your Smart Playlists!

Show us your Smart Playlists

Now it’s your turn: Found a clever way to use Ratings and Smart Playlists together? Send us a screen capture of your settings and Smart Playlist and we’ll make a gallery from them to share with other MacLife.com readers. There may not be a prize in it for you, but you’ll get your name in (digital) print and the eternal gratitude of your fellow MacLifers. And that, as the saying goes, is priceless.

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