iTunes Smart Playlists

a system for the overly organized

I have tried to write a gentle introduction to getting the most out of iTunes Smart Playlists. I assume you can create a Smart Playlist, but are looking to manage lots and lots of more complex lists. I suggest a system that allows me to find any playlist relatively easily, and to create new playlists based on existing ones.

In keeping with the KISS principle, my system has three simple rules. Being an engineer, each rule has an auxiliary. An auxiliary is a fancy way of saying "supplemental"; it can also mean "helpful". These auxiliaries are a plea for order and simplicity.

Three Simple Rules, with Auxiliaries:

  1. Create Simple Baselines
    Name Baselines Consistently
  2. Create Building Blocks from the Baselines
    Use Consistent Adjectives in Consistent Order
  3. Combine Building Blocks
    I couldn't think of an auxiliary using Consistent

Create Simple Baselines

Almost all of my music playlists are derived from a single baseline playlist. I use distinct playlists to load my iPod with items that are exceptions to this list. This baseline reflects my quirks:
  • I only want music, not podcasts, audiobooks, old-time radio shows, etc.
  • I do not like short songs (less than 1 minute).
  • I do not like long songs on my iPod (10 minutes or longer).
  • Songs that are damaged do not belong on my playlist. I use one star to mark songs that need to be fixed: * .
  • Songs that suck do not belong on my playlist. I use two stars to mark songs that I do not like: ** .

I uncheck all one and two star songs, mostly out of habit. I use Match checked songs only on my baseline lists. (For completeness, three stars, the default, means a song is ok; four stars, pretty good; and five stars, "I really like this".))

My baseline playlist is called Podworthy , with a tip of the hat to Seinfield. I use:
Match ALL of the following rules:
Genre is not Podcast
Genre is not Audiobook
...
Time is in the range 1:00 to 10:00
My Rating is not *
My Rating is not **

Do not "Limit to ...".

On my iPod, Podworthy is larger than my iPod's capacity. For simplicity's sake, I have two derived baselines as well. Unrated Podworthy is
Match ALL of the following rules:
Playlist is Podworthy
My Rating is

and Rated Podworthy is
Match ALL of the following rules:
Playlist is Podworthy
My Rating is greater than **

I can create exceptions for things I specifically want on my iPod. For example, I have a LongClassical created with:
Match ALL of the following rules:
Genre is Classical
Time is greater than 10:00
Limit to 2 hours selected by random
Matched Checked Songs Only.

Name Baselines Consistently

I use the following to keep track of Baseline playlists:

  • +Playlist
    A baseline playlist used to create others. My Podworthy list is actually +Podworthy , and so forth. The + ensures these playlists appear near the top of the list of playlists.

    + lists can be simple or complex. I prefer to have large, simple + lists such as +Podworthy , +Unrated Podworthy , +Fresh Podworth and use z lists for smaller, complex sets of songs.

  • -Playlist
    A "subtract" playlist used to remove songs from other playlists.

    These are pretty rare, since most simple conditions have a NOT form, such as "not in the range", "is not", or even "greater than", and you can AND them to create complex NOT conditions.

  • zPlaylist
    An intermediate playlist use to combine others.

    The z will put these at the bottom of list. I almost never put "z" playlists on my iPod directly. I often abbreviate these beyond comprehension. I have "Old Time Radio Shows", and "Women Artists". I use "radio" and "woman" in the comment field to denote these, and call them zRadioShows and zFem. I also have "Good Old Rock" (Artists include Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and similar) and "Roots Rock" (Artists include Big in Iowa, Everclear, Gin Blossoms, Ryan Adams, Whiskytown, and similar) called zGOR and zRoots.


    These are used to create:

  • *Playlist
    A composite playlist.

    Many playlists on my iPod are composite. The * will put these playlists at the top of list, and make them quick to find on the iPod.
    Most of the playlists that are not composite start with an zero or more adjectives followed by a Genre, Artist or Album. This is to make it easy to find them on the iPod. Examples are New Unrated 1960s Rock , Favorite Cowboy Junkies , Dark Side of the Moon .

Create Building Blocks from Baselines

Whenever you have several playlists using mostly the same rules, create an adjective as an easy-to-remember shortcut.

Keyword Meaning How to Implement This Abbreviation
Decade Recorded from 19n0 to 19n9. Year is in the range 19n0 to 19n9. n0s e.g. 60s
Rating I have rated this n Stars. My Rating is ***** . n* e.g.5*
Favorite In the top 10% of most played songs. Limit to nnn selected by most often played. Fav
Fresh I haven't heard this lately. Last Played not in the last 30 days. Fr
Least Recently Played Self Evident :-). Limit to nnn songs by Least Recently Played. LRP
Most Recently Played Recent songs Limit to nnn songs by Most Recently Played. RP
New I recently added this. Date Added is in the last 30 days. N
Old I haven't heard this in a long time. Date Added is not in the last 12 months. Fr
Top nnn Most Often Played Limit to nnn songs by Playcount Top e.g. Top 40
Unrated I haven't rated this. My Rating is . U

Use Keywords to Organize Your Thoughts... and Playlists!

You can use abbreviations to make it cryptic, but easy to find on your iPod. My examples above are N U 60s Rock, Fav Cowboy Junkies, and Dark Side / Moon. This makes it easier to distinguish them on the iPod, where you might have several Favorite Least Recently Played Genre playlists. You might also want to put the artist or album name first if that helps you find it. Then you do not wade through lots of Fav playlists to find Fav Joe Jackson. This also has the advantage that once you find the artist, you can choose among all playlists - e.g. Fav, Fresh or New Springsteen, Bruce.

Use Consistent Adjectives in Consistent Order

Now that you have a set of adjectives, string them together consistently. I use alphabetical order. If you have:
*60s Fr U
*Fr U 70s
*U Fr 90s
Where do you find your fresh, unrated music from the 1980's?

Combine Building Blocks


One of the limitations of Smart Playlists is that you can use AND or OR to combine conditions, but not both in the same playlist. Use playlists to get around this. Build playlists for each set of AND , OR , NOT AND and NOT OR conditions, then AND or OR them together. If you want use hip boolean algebra language, you can call NOT AND "nand" and NOT OR "nor". It won't impress the chicks, though.

A playlist for (A AND B) OR (C AND D)
Playlist zAB: Match ALL of the following rules Condition A
Condition B
Playlist zCD: Match ALL of the following rules Condition C
Condition D
Playlist *AB+CD: Match ANY of the following rules Playlist is zAB
Playlist is zCD

Before you know it, you too can have a Top 80-100 Fresh Good Old Rock Fr T80-100 GOR playlist - and find it!

Keep in mind I am an engineer - send comments, criticism, or suggestions via email. Thanks.