Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Latest Project

Last week, I wrote a post about the lessons I have learned in more than three years of rating movies using Netflix. You can read the full article, but I will also provide a short summary. Because I generally select movies to watch that I think that I will like, my rating list is very top-heavy, with more than twice as many 5-star ratings as there are 1 and 2-star combined. I also realized that there is very little difference in my opinion of 2-star movies over 1-star, while there are actually tiers within my 5-star ratings that are only known by me and not reflected in the rating.

So that brings me to my latest project. I have recently started at the top of my iTunes music library and will listen to all 5240 songs (and that number will surely grow by the time I am done) and rate them using the 5-Star system that iTunes affords. And I will do so applying what I think is a better strategy than I have used for Netflix.

This song rating project is actually just a smaller part of an ongoing project that I've been working on for about 8 months now. Since I finally gave in and am using iTunes as the sole platform for managing my music collection, I decided that I needed to get my iTunes library into as good a shape as possible. I have already sifted through my music correcting inconsistencies in band and album titles ("Beatles" vs "Beetles" vs. "The Beatles" vs. "Beatles, The"), supplying correct album titles were there were none, and tracking down album artwork for every track in my collection. I am specially proud of my solution for the large number of live bootlegs that I possess. I grouped them by band and gave each set an album name of Live X ("Live Pearl Jam" for instance). I then found a picture from a concert by that band and used it for album art.

So the latest phase in that ongoing project is rating every song. I quickly realized that the problems I would have using a rating scale from "love it" to "hate it" would be even more severe than in Netflix. Here's why. Netflix is a catalog of every movie that I've ever seen. If I do watch a 1-star movie, I can't un-see it (and believe me, I wish I could get rid of the 20 minutes that I watched of Pink Flamingos). But iTunes is a collection of music that I possess. While there might be any number of Britney Spears songs that I can't stand, they aren't in my library. Of the 5240 songs currently in my collection, I would hazard a guess that I would say that I "like" at least 5000. Which, in Netflix terms would mean 3 stars.

Therefore I have started using a new ranking system that will hopefully result in a much more natural and even curve. I present that system to you, my loyal readers, for your consideration:


First an foremost I will apply this ranking to any song that I never like listening to. As I said before, there aren't many of those in my library, but sometimes you rip a cd and there is one song you can't stand, but you don't want to delete it and screw up the track numbering ...

But I will also use the 1-star rating for another purpose. Any track that I would label as "album filler" will get the 1-star. By album filler, I mean that there is no circumstance that I would wish to hear that track outside of the context of the album. While I think that the helicopter chase between Another Brick in the Wall parts one and two is really cool, I wouldn't really want it popping up in a playlist.


2-star songs are ones that I don't really have anything against, they just don't do a whole lot for me. White noise tracks. While I wouldn't skip them listening to an album, I also wouldn't ever seek to them. For one of these songs to go on a playlist, it would have to have a very specific concept, and even then it would be just because I am trying to pad the length.


A 3-star song is one that when I hear it, I really enjoy it, but I probably would never seek it out. Most of the full albums that I own, even ones that I really like, will be full of 3-Star songs. 3 star songs might turn up on a playlist if it fits the theme really well, or maybe if I wanted to some music to play in the background that I will enjoy but won't overly distract me.

3 stars will also probably be my default rating for song that I'm not sure about. I will keep my eye on 3 star songs when they come up in the future and may bump them up or down a star as I see fit. In fact, I might create one or more playlists for just this purpose.


Now we're getting somewhere. Whenever I've said "Oh, I love this song", that's an automatic 4 stars. Note that under my Netflix system this would be five stars, and you'll see why that would be a problem in a minute. 4-star songs are ones that I will hunt down when I'm in a mood for a certain type of music. Most of my general listening playlists will be full of 4-star songs.


To fit my song ratings under a normal curve, I should have very few 1-Star songs, and equally few 5-star songs. That's why 5 stars under this system is a special category. I said songs that I love will get an automatic 4 stars. I certainly love 5-star songs as well, they just have to have a certain extra quality to them.

I said that 4-stars are ones that I want to hear when I'm in a certain mood. Well a 5-star song is one that will PUT me in that mood. A 5-star song can make you cry when you're happy. They can bring you out of a funk. They can make you feel like you're sixteen again. They're powerful. Dangerous. A misplaced 5-star song could ruin a playlist. But it can also be the cornerstone of a great playlist.


So there you have it. It's too early to say (I'm still in the A's), but my hope is that this system will produce a much more even distribution of stars, with thousands of 3-star songs, hundreds each of 2 and 4 star tracks, and just a few dozen each 5 and 1 stars. I will probably still skew slightly toward the upper register, but hey, I really like music.

My ultimate goal with this ranking system is to be able to make better, smarter playlists. I also have some other plans to assist with this task that I would like to discuss, but I will save that for another time.


Blogger Unknown said...

I switched to iTunes about a month ago and am in the process of doing the same thing. My ratings are a bit similar to yours, except I give 1 star to anything that has been tagged right and has artwork, and work up from there. So far I have ~500 3 star songs, ~100 4 star songs, and ~5 5 star songs. I've been saving 5 stars for songs that I get irrationally stuck in my head for weeks at a time, and don't get tired of listening to. I will say, it's really worth the time spent organizing. Playlists are easy to set up (3 star or better songs with the genre country makes a quick and easy set of songs) and everything always has art. I've spent way too much time typing in album info and pasting art when it's not found automatically, but the result is that I've enjoyed my music collection a lot more. Smart playlists are fantastic.

10/10/2007 08:10:00 PM  
Blogger Brickell said...

That was a very succinct summary of rating iTunes songs. Like you and Adam, I started rating songs, tracking down album info and artwork over a year ago. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of that data when I reformatted my hard drive and reinstalled iTunes. Make sure you back up your songs using iTunes, just copying them to another drive will not preserve their ratings. One thing I found useful in rating songs was to create an unrated smart playlist for different genres (rock, punk, country, etc.) and then playing those lists while on road trips. You can rate songs directly from the iPod by clicking the center button a few times. Over a 3 hour drive I could rate at least 50 songs if I listened to all of them or you can speed things up by skipping songs as soon as you determine a rating. Good luck.

11/10/2007 11:21:00 AM  

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