iTunes in Focus

Although you might not be aware of it, you use tags every time you use iTunes. "Tags" are bits of information about the song you're playing or the video you're watching. Sometimes referred to as "metadata" (data about data), tags associated with the music or video file include the song or movie's name, artists or actors, genre, album name, and more. Without tags your iTunes Library would be nothing more than a list of filenames that can sometimes be unintelligible. Understanding and using tags is the key to controlling your iTunes content.

This is the first article in a regular column that will be devoted to iTunes. In this one, I'll explain how to use tags to make iTunes organize, sort, and sync your iTunes content the way you want it to. (Note: The screenshots are from the Mac version of iTunes, but the PC version is nearly identical.)

How do you change tags?

iTunesTags1NWhen you buy a piece of content from the iTunes store the most important tags—artist, album name, song name, artwork, etc.—are downloaded for you. Note that tags apply to all iTunes content, but this article focuses on music. When you rip your own CD, iTunes downloads the appropriate tags from Gracenote's CDDB database (Internet connection required). If the music CD or movie you rip is not contained in Gracenote's database, you'll have to enter the tags yourself.

You can change tags by either selecting one item or a group of items and then opening the "Get Info" dialog box by pressing Command-I on the Mac or Control-I on the PC (Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1: The Get Info Box allows you to change over 40 tags.

Note that you see slightly different dialog boxes depending on whether you selected one or multiple items. Two of the tags—name and lyrics—cannot be changed when you have selected multiple items. The Info dialog box can appear overwhelming. Apple has added additional tags to each new major release of iTunes—there are now over 40 tags (note that some tags like Kind, Size, and Bit Rate are not user changeable).

But which ones should you worry about and why? The answer depends on what you want to accomplish. The 5 examples below focus on tags that not only will help keep your iTunes Library organized but also can make selectively syncing music to your iOS devices a snap!

Tagging tips:

1. Make sure artist names are spelled consistently.

iTunesTags2NDifferent albums by the same artist will sometimes have different spellings of the artist's name. First, make sure you know what the correct spelling is. (Look at an album cover or go to the artist's website.) Then, fix the misspellings in iTunes by following these easy steps:

Fig. 2: Toggling the Column Browser.

  1. Open iTunes, click the View menu and select "as List."

  2. Select View>Column Browser (Mac or PC) (Fig. 2).

  3. In the Column Browser make sure that the following are checked:

    • Artist

    • Albums

    • On Top

    • Group Compilations

  4. In the Column Browser, make sure that "genre" is not checked.

  5. iTunesTags3NIn the list view, inspect the Artist column at the top of the screen and look for any artist that appears twice (Fig. 3). Look for misspelled names. 

  6. In the Albums column, select the album or albums associated with the misspelled artist and open the Item Information dialog box (Command-I on the Mac; Control-I on the PC).

  7. Click "Yes" in the resulting dialog box that asks "Are you sure you want to edit information for multiple items."

  8. Finally, type the correct spelling of the artist's name in the Artists edit box and click "OK."

Fig. 3: Use the Artist Column to find misspelled artist names. In this example, the artist "Aimee Mann is listed twice and the first listing is misspelled.

The incorrectly spelled entry in the Artist column in the Column Browser will disappear! Repeat this procedure until you are satisfied that you have no misspelled artist names.

2. Organize your music in Genres 

While artist's names are objective, the genre their song falls into can be a highly subjective decision. Some users categorize their music collection into a handful of genres, but others may like to fine-tune things and have 50 or more. Your list of genres should reflect your needs and the way you organize music in your mind. For example, I have over 80 albums listed under the "Soundtrack" genre because I often want to listen to just soundtracks.

Since there is no right or wrong way to choose genres, you might be tempted to ignore this tag. Don't! Because genre is a flexible category, it gives you the power to customize iTunes in ways you might not have thought possible. In addition, genres come in extremely handy when you're creating smart playlists or syncing your music library to an iOS device. Here's how you set up your genres:

  1. Open iTunes and click the View menu and select "as Album List".

  2. Display the Column Browser (View>Column Browser).

  3. In the Column Browser, make sure the following are checked:

    • Artist

    • Albums

    • On Top

    • Group Compilations

    • Genre

  4. The Genre column should now appear above the list view.

3. Change a song or album's genre 

iTunesTags3NReview it and change the genre associated with a specific album or song by following these steps. In this example, I'm changing the genre of the Bob Dylan album, "Christmas In the Heart" from "Holiday" to "Folk" (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Use the "Genre" drop-down to change genres for multiple albums.

  1. In the Albums column, select the desired album or albums.

  2. Open the "Get Info" dialog box (Command-I on the Mac; Control-I on the PC). Click "Yes" in the resulting dialog box that asks "Are you sure you want to edit information for multiple items."

  3. Go to the Info tab and select the Genre drop-down menu at the bottom of the screen.

  4. Select the genre you want to tag the album with and click "OK."

  5. Note that if the Bob Dylan album was the only one associated with the Holiday genre, once I change it to Folk, the Holiday disappears from the genre list.

4. Create a new genre

Following the above steps, if you get to step 4 and don't see the genre you want in the drop-down list, simply delete the genre in the edit box and type in the new genre name. Click "OK" and you're finished.

5. Exclude songs from Shuffle

I rarely used the Shuffle feature in iTunes or on my iOS devices because I didn't think there was a way to exclude the songs I didn't want to hear. Then I discovered the "Skip When Shuffling" tag. Here's how you exclude songs from Shuffle:

  1. Select the tracks you want to exclude in the list view.

  2. Open the Items Information dialog box (Command-I on the Mac; Control-I on the PC).

  3. Click on the "Skip when Shuffling" checkbox and hit "OK." (No more "Clair De Lune" sandwiched between "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday.")


iTunesTags5N Is the Artist column in your iTunes Library cluttered with hundreds of artists you never heard of? You may be the victim of "compilations." A compilation album contains tracks by multiple artists. Examples include tribute albums, benefit concerts, and soundtracks. For example, the (mythical) album "One Hit Wonders of the 80's" might contain 25 tracks each by a different artist (that's why they were one hit wonders). If you downloaded this album, each artist would be listed in your Artist list, with one associated track. You can quickly end up with hundreds or even thousands of artists, making your Artist list virtually useless. Fortunately, you can clean up the Artist list by using the compilation tag and an iTunes menu option.

Marking an album as part of a compilation removes the artist from the artist list.

  1. In the Albums column, find the albums that are compilations (soundtracks are often compilations).

  2. Select each compilation album and open the Item Information window (Command-I on the Mac; Control-I on the PC).

  3. In the Options tab, check the "Part of a compilation" box and select "Yes" from the dropdown menu and click on "OK" (Fig. 5).

iTunesTags6NAfter you have finished tagging albums as compilations, go to the "View" menu and select "Column Browser" and make sure the option "Group Compilations" is checked. After you've finished, you'll see "Compilations" in the Artists list instead of the name of every individual artist.

This solution works fine in the desktop versions of iTunes. The problem is that it doesn't work consistently across Apple's mobile devices. For example, some iPod models have an option just like in iTunes to "Group Compilations", so artists that are part of Compilations are grouped at the top of the Artist List, just like in iTunes. But other iPod models (and no version of the iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV) has an equivalent option, so artist lists on these devices become needlessly long.

The image on the left is from iTunes' Artist listings; the one on the right is the equivalent listing on the iPhone. Noate the additional artists (Bad Ronald, Barbara Streisand, etc.) in the iPhone listing. these arists appeared on compilations, but the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV do not have a "Group Compilations" option.

This oversight is particularly irksome on the Apple TV as it is more difficult to scroll through an enormous Artist list using the remote than it is to flick your finger on the iPhone or iPad. The Internet lists a variety of workarounds, all of which have side effects worse than the symptom.

Here's hoping Apple fixes this in a future iOS release.

Using "Tags" to Control Your iTunes Music

March-April 2011
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