Order Out of Nothingness: Tagging 101

Robert Stribley   January 12, 2010
order-out-of-nothingness1Music tagging gone wild. (Image via Stribs)

The Breakdown: Look no further to solve all of your iTunes song tagging problems. Robert Stribley tells us how his review of iTunes reveals some interesting principles about metadata and tagging, and may help you get to the music you love most.


I’m organized but not overly so. I mean, I kept my books in alphabetical order as a kid, but I didn’t think of it as an early indicator of the career path I’d take. But I do appreciate order, so when I import a CD into iTunes and iTunes assigns metadata to my lovely new tunes via its Gracenotes system (which compiles user-generated and submitted data), it’s a relief to me, when the provided data has been entered with, you know, some semblance of order. Often, it isn’t. In reviewing this data over time, I noticed users make certain mistakes consistently when tagging their music. These mistakes then, reveal principles, and though they happen to apply to music in my iPod, in practice, they also apply to tagging other digital files.

For your consideration then:

1. Some tags are more important than others

In iTunes, the artist tag proves more important than other tags (album and genre do also), and how it’s completed can affect iTunes’ ability to filter and present your music effectively. The wrong date tag may not matter. A typo in the artist, album, or song field however, may mean you can’t find your music. A typo in the artist field also affects more files than misspelling a single song title. The consequences of errors in completing some fields are simply far greater than others. Specifically, when fields are tied into key functionality, such as sorting and filtering, creating flawed metadata within those fields blunts that helpful functionality.

2. Tag key fields consistently

Some fields like the song name allow you to tag each file differently. The artist and album fields don’t. For example, you should complete the artist field with the artist primarily associated with the work, and use another category to add additional artists, which happen to contribute to a single tune. In other words, tagging Mos Def’s recent song “History” as “Mos Def with Talib Kweli” screws up a sort on “Mos Def” in your iPod because your iPod now thinks “Mos Def” and “Mos Def with Talib Kweli” are two different artists. A solution is to add “(with Talib Kweli)” after the song title. Otherwise, I end up with one orphaned song in my iPod: If I select to play all songs by “Mos Def,” that song doesn’t even show up.

Similarly, tagging one album “R.E.M.” and another “REM” creates two different bands. Be consistent. Simple things like the use of the word “The” (“Cinematic Orchestra” or “The Cinematic Orchestra?) or an ampersand (“Antony & the Johnsons” or “Antony and the Johnsons”?), can throw a wrench in the works. If alternate spellings exist for a particular piece of information, you should decide which will be the primary spelling and enter that consistently.

3. Avoid meaningless tags

Completing the genre field with tags like “other,” “unknown,” “unclassifiable” and, arguably, even “alternative” provides little if any utility. You may as well leave the field blank. “Unclassifiable” sounds cute to the fan, who doesn’t want to pigeonhole their band, but what does the “unclassifiable” genre sound like as a playlist? Probably a pretty icky mélange. “Unclassifiable” may reflect one’s personal appreciation, but effectively, it’s no better a category than “miscellaneous.”

“Alternative” seems useless for different reasons. It originally referred to bands, who signed with non-mainstream labels, so “alternative” doesn’t necessarily refer to a well-defined sound or genre.  “Alternative” doesn’t mean two songs sound even remotely alike. Furthermore, bands which were once “alternative” may now be mainstream (Hello, Snow Patrol!). Wolfmother sounds enough like AC/DC that you may as well label both “rock.” Or “metal.” Or something more helpful than “alternative.”

4. Combine redundant tags

This principle overlaps with the point about consistency, but we should highlight the importance of both combining and distinguishing between categories – something that may apply to the same file or song. (For a related discussion, see Rachel Lovinger on splitting and lumping, too.) For instance, when I searched on “electronic” within iTunes, I found I had songs tagged with the following genres: electronic, electronica, Electronica/Dance and Dance/Electronic, Electronica & Dance and Rock/Electronic. That doesn’t even include electro, which I’d allow a separate genre for or other genres like downtempo, dubstep or trip-hop which would often fall under Electronic.

What a mess. I selected all of these and replaced them with “Electronic.” Could I have distinguished between Dance and Electronic? Perhaps, though, if they truly share the Electronic genre, I’m happy to go with that. That does bring us to our next point, though.

5. Distinguish between different tags

As important as it is to group things consistently, it’s also important to allow their distinctions. Trip-hop, glitch hop, dubstep and electro, for example, are all sub-genres, which might appear under electronic. They are all, also, arguably distinguishable. If you’re familiar with these genres, you’ll provide more sorting utility by labeling music with them, rather than simply placing them solely under an amorphous tag like “Electronic/Dance.” We’re spoiled with a wealth of musical variety in the 21st century. May as well help other folks discover these rich veins of music.

Now, if I could just get Apple to add a separate column for “tags” (or at least allow multiple genres), then I could place songs under more than one genre or subgenre (electronic and dubstep) and filter them in different ways (dubstep is also chill is also electronic). Then I could tag a tune like Burial’s “Shell of Light” with all of these. Creating a playlist just ain’t the same, and it’s more difficult to create playlists when songs aren’t tagged correctly.  Besides, I use playlists to create groupings, which ignore genre (workout, Summer Party, NYC, road trip, romantic, etc). Finally, allowing for additional, well-crafted tags would allow me to better create new playlists on the fly.

Well, back to my iTunes. I have housecleaning to do.

*Links provided to songs and bands on Lala.com, purely for your listening enjoyment

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10 Responses

  1. Erik says:

    Thanks for the great post. These are issues I’ve been unsuccessfully grappling with myself and I tend to wonder whether the entire schema should be reconfigured. As a hip-hop fan, cameos have pretty much ruined my ability to isolate individual artists short of searching on their name in the search box. It seems a field that can represent supporting artists would be helpful to isolate the full body of work of each artist without forcing the user to devise a query.

  2. Great example, Erik. It’s a common problem in the hip-hop and electronic genres, where an artist may have several different vocalists featured on a single album. You need the flexibility to describe that data – and the relationships among those data points even – accurately.

    A similar issue exists with classical music, too: If Górecki is the composer and The Polish Radio Orchestra plays his symphony, which goes in the artist field?

  3. Johan Strandell says:

    iTunes does have some additional sorting functions, but they’re fairly well hidden away.

    If you use View Info on a track or album there’s a tab for Sorting. There you can override the actual artist, so you can for instance have classical music sorted by the composer instead of the performer by setting “Sort Artist” to the composer. This way, you still get the information about who performed it in iTunes.

    It seems to work as expected for collaborations as well. (It seems to work with iPods as well, but I haven’t tested it extensively.)

    But I agree that tagging would be a better solution.

  4. Great post! iTunes may be the best real-world example when it comes to explaining the importance of metadata, and the impact it can have.

    A colleague (a classical double-bass player) and I have had many discussions about the limitations of the iTunes tagging scheme. It is especially apparent in the world of classical music.

    As you mentioned, a classical release often has more variables than most other music. These have all shown up in the artist field, without consistency via the iTunes connection with CDDB, the online database used to auto-populate the tags:
    -orchestras
    -soloists
    -conductors
    -composers

    Things get more complicated when movements or “songs” are named things like “Adagio” or “Lento.” Sorting becomes all but impossible.

  5. You’re absolutely right, Johan. I select Get Info myself on a file to make updates. And there is a composer field there, which solves the above issue for those who are aware of it. Primarily, I meant to focus on the fields users typically see in iTunes and the impact of completing those.

    Clinton, your point reminds me of another thing I often think about, which I didn’t include above: liner notes. Now, you actually can add lyrics, etc to an mp3, tho I see few artists doing that. But I also like the idea that I can see who played oboe on a particular track – or, what on earth was than instrument I heard on that track? … etc.

    People often raise an eyebrow when I say I still buy CDs (in addition to a lot of mp3s), but it’s precisely for this rich, accompanying data, which I don’t get in a digital file. Yet.

  6. mindtron says:

    another benefit to tagging in itunes would be the ability to apply a song to multiple albums at the same time.

    if the same version of a song is on a compilation or soundtrack as an album, it would be nice to not have two copies in your library

  7. Mikko says:

    2. Learn how to use artist/album artist and sorting. ;)

  8. Thanks for the thought, Mikko. Are you referring to using the album artist field, as distinct from the artist field? If so, it’s a good point, though I guess my response would be that iTunes doesn’t present it to users as a default. Either way, I think the principle of tagging (the right) key fields consistently remains the point. Besides,

    You may, however, have also just highlighted a usability issue with iTunes!

  9. Mindtron: Yes, another good point. Of course, it’s even messier when the same track is different lengths on different albums, but that’s also a different issue, I suppose.

  10. V says:

    Finally, some non-geek answers on “how to tag”. Thanks for the nice start to fixing my mess of music!

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