Fun With Playlists

One thing I like about iTunes is its “smart playlists”, which are not simply lists of songs, but are defined by certain criteria. For instance, I have one called “80s Music”, with the single rule

  • Year is in the range 1980 to 1898

which, obviously, contains all music from the 1980s, and is automatically updated when I add or remove songs.

Recent versions have added a number of other features and criteria, which make various interesting lists possible.

iPod / Not on iPod

I have two simple (not smart) playlists called “iPod” and “Audiobooks”, which list the music and audiobooks that I want on my iPod. One problem, though, is that when I add a new album, I sometimes forget to add it to the “iPod” list. For this, I’ve created the “Not on iPod” smart playlist:

  • Playlist is not “iPod”
  • Playlist is not “Audiobooks”
  • Genre is not “Christmas”
  • Podcast is false
  • Kind is “MPEG audio file”

This is a list of things that might belong on the iPod, but aren’t on the list. If I find an album there that I want to listen to at work, I can just move it to the “iPod” list.

(The criterion “Kind is MPEG audio file” is there so that it won’t list Ogg Vorbis files, which the iPod still can’t play. Grrr.)

Of course, the list is getting long enough that I should add a “Don’t want on iPod” list, and add “Playlist is not `Don’t want on iPod'” to the list of criteria.

Not recently played

One of the things that struck me when I first ripped all of my CDs to MP3 and put them in one collection was the rediscovery of “old friends”: songs that I hadn’t listened to in years because the album only has one good song on it, so I couldn’t be bothered to pop the CD into the player. Or else I’d look at the spine and not remember any good songs on there, so again I wouldn’t put it in the player. Dumping the whole thing onto disk and hitting “shuffle” allowed me to rediscover some of the good stuff in there.

But now I have a similar problem: just by chance, some songs haven’t come up in the rotation for a while. So I created the “Not recently played” smart playlist:

  • Last Played is not in the last 24 months
  • Last Skipped is not in the last 24 months
  • Podcast is false
  • Genre is not “Audio Book”
  • Genre is not “Comedy”
  • Play Count is greater than 0
  • Limit to 8 hours, selected randomly

(The 8-hour limit is to keep it down to a reasonable size, so I can put it on the iPod.)

Granted, in many cases there’s a good reason why I haven’t listened to those songs in years: they suck. But as they come up and I skip them, they’re removed from the list.

I also have a miniature version of this for the end of the year: I have a (plain) playlist of Christmas music, and also a smart playlist called “Unplayed Christmas”:

  • Playlist is “Christmas”
  • Last Played is not in the last 30 days
  • Last Skipped is not in the last 1 days

which boils down to “Christmas music I haven’t listened to this year yet”.

Strengths and Limitations

As can be seen from the above, the fact that you can not only select songs by various criteria, but also perform set operations on existing playlists, means that you can create some fairly interesting lists.

One shortcoming, though, is that all of the criteria in a smart playlist have to be joined either by “and” or “or”. In other words, you can’t create a smart playlist of the form “(A and B) or (C and D)”. To do that, you have to create playlist 1 with “A and B”, playlist 2 with “C and D”, and the real playlist with “playlist 1 or playlist 2”. But that takes up slots in the list of playlists in the iTunes sidebar.

iTunes’s notion of “skipped” is a bit odd: if a song comes up and you skip to the next one, its skip count goes up. But you have to do so at least 2 seconds into the song, and no later than N seconds, where N is something like 20. But in many cases, I can recognize a song from the first note or two (or from the title, if I’m looking at the list), and would rather not listen to it just now. But I have to wait for the 2-second mark because I want to increment the skip count. Other songs build up slowly, so by the time I think I don’t want to listen to this, the 20-second mark has passed.

I’m not sure what the fix for this is. If you listen to ten minutes of a twenty-minute symphony, then skip forward, should it count as a skip? And if you accidentally double-click the “next song” button, should that count as skipping the second song?

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