How I rate songs in iTunes

I never fiddled with iTunes before I bought my iPod 5G in 2010 as my birthday present to myself. I found -- and still find -- iTunes to be both useful and maddening. Kirk McElhearn's Take Control of iTunes ebook is a great resource for the music fan who just wants to get things done in iTunes and I recommend it. But I daresay that one of the things within the ken of even the most novice user are rating music tracks. You can rate an album or each track of an album from 1 to 5 stars. Ratings are most useful in conjunction with smart playlists, where you can specify that only 5-star rated songs can be included or exclude any 2-star songs, and so on.

Given my mania for wanting to do things "right" (yeesh) I scoured the web for advice on different ratings systems. Most of the advice follows the standard "more stars=higher quality" pattern, like star ratings for movies. Yet I thought that too simplistic and too labor-intensive. Why would I want to rate every song in my iTunes collection? Why even bother rating tracks I dislike or am indifferent about? And -- why keep them in iTunes if I don't like them, anyway?

Jason Guthrie had the best selection of non-standard advice, with two ideas that I began using right away: use one-stars for punishment and rate tracks by intensity. So here's how I rate my tracks:

  • One-star tracks are songs I don't want to hear at all, ever again. One-star tracks are excluded from my smart playlists. And though I haven't done this yet, I could view all one-star tracks and simply delete them from iTunes so they never darken my earbuds again.
  • Two-star tracks are slow, haunting, somewhat melancholy songs -- Barber's Adagio for Strings comes to mind. These tracks evoke a  reflective mood. I tend to listen to this smart playlist in the morning, drinking my first coffee of the day, when the rest of the world is quiet.
  • Three-star tracks are a little more upbeat but medium tempo; the pace of a relaxed heartbeat, perhaps. Not surprisingly, most of the tunes I rate fall into this bucket and I can listen to this at any time; it's like a personal radio station of easy listening music and includes classical, pop, world, lounge, and other genres.
  • Four-star tracks are the upbeat, fast-paced tracks with a driving beat that put a silly grin on my face. "Jaan Pehechan-Ho" is the go-to example here, but so is "The Intro and the Outro." I tend to play this late in the day when my energy flags and I want a pick-me-up.
  • Five-stars ... I haven't come up with a need for five star ratings yet. So I'm reserving this classification until a great idea comes my way.

I don't rate absolutely every track in iTunes, as that way lies madness. I only rate those tunes I like well enough to want to listen to again. So my 2-, 3-, and 4-star playlists hold only a fraction of all the music I've recorded or downloaded so far, yet they're the tracks that give me the most pleasure.

The ratings by intensity reminds me of a tip I read from Michael Neill, I think, where he recommended creating playlists based on your mood. So when you're in a bad mood and want to feel better, create a ladder of playlists that take you from low to high. Start by listening  to the playlist with songs that resonate with your sad or angry mood. Then, move to a playlist with songs that are less dark, more bright. Then, move to a playlist of songs with happier associations. In this way, you can use your iPod to make yourself feel better just by listening to music.

And if you don't want to go to all the trouble of creating moody playlists, well, there's an app for that.