Building Smart Playlists In iTunes

Building Smart Playlists In iTunes
smartplaylist02When we asked readers recently whether they used the shuffle feature on their iPod, a popular response was “yes, in combination with smart playlists”. If that sounds like Greek to you, here’s how to go about it.

Being able to construct playlists is one of the most appealing features of the iPod (or indeed most digital music players). However, many new users never get beyond building simple playlists by dragging and dropping their favourite tracks. iTunes offers a much more sophisticated approach — smart playlists — which let you assemble lists based on other criteria, such as the ratings you’ve applied to songs.

The instructions below are based on the Windows version of iTunes (which is the most widespread version), though I imagine that the options on the Mac would be more or less the same.

To construct a smart playlist, select the New Smart Playlist option from the File menu. You can also type Ctrl-Alt-N for a quick keyboard shortcut. Either way, you’ll get the dialog below.


If you click on the dropdown featuring Artist in this shot, you’ll see a potentially bewildering list of 40-odd different criteria. However, the basic approach is pretty straightforward: you simply select a criteria and then choose how you want to limit it.

One of the most popular options is to use the song ratings (expressed in a range of one to five stars) which you can apply to tracks in iTunes. Select ‘ratings’ and set the adjacent option to ‘is greater than’ and the criteria to three stars. You’ve now got a playlist that contains all songs you’ve rated at four or five stars — that is, music which you really like.

Playlists can be assembled using more than one rule. To add additional rules, click on the plus sign. You might, for instance, build a ‘Best Of 1980s’ playlist by seeking all songs rated four stars or more with a year in the range 1980 to 1989.

Aside from ratings, here’s some of the more useful criteria you can select to build a playlist:

  • Artist: useful for building a master list of all music by a favourite performer. You can also use this to exclude a particular artist (so if you’re sick of those U2 tracks, you can drop them from a particular playlist easily).
  • BPM: Select tracks running at 120 to 140 beats per minute for a great workout mix.
  • Composer: Find out if every song Ryan Tedder has composed really does sound the same. (This option will probably only work with iTunes Store purchases, since your ripped CDs don’t usually include composer information in tracks).
  • Date Added: Use this to create a playlist of your newest purchases.
  • Play Count: Find the tracks you rarely listen to by building a play list with play count of 2 or less.

The ‘Limit to’ option under the rule settings can be useful if you want a playlist to contain a particular number of tracks or to run for a specified period. For most playlists, you’ll want the Live updating box selected so that newly-added or changed items are placed on suitable playlists.

When you click OK, the playlist will be created. Type in a suitably memorable name and hit Enter. To edit an existing smart playlist, click on it then select Edit Smart Playlist from the file menu.

Getting rules to work assumes that your music data is accurately tagged. If that isn’t the case, check out the six best MP3 tagging tools.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


  • The most powerful feature of Smart Playlists is that you can base them on other playlists (Smart or otherwise) to provide even more advanced filtering.

    I use a combination of Smart Playlists to construct a constantly changing playlist of about 50 songs for my commute that:

    – exclude any songs in my iTunes I never want to hear (eg, stuff I bought for my kids)
    – ignore tracks that are really short, classical, spoken, podcasts, or have fewer than 2 stars
    – present me with up to 5 unrated or unplayed tracks (so I can rate them)
    – play me the 10 3-star songs I listened to least recently
    – play me a mix of 4-star songs that I haven’t heard in ages and randomly selected ones I haven’t heard in the last week
    – play me the 5-star songs I haven’t heard in ages
    – play me the songs I’ve tagged “ATF” (all time favourites) in the Comments field I haven’t heard in ages
    – play me the 5-6 songs I’ve manually put on my “High Rotation” playlist as songs I can currently listen to over and over.

    Works a charm! My own personal radio station without Kyle Sandilands.

  • I agree with Paul, in that the ability to chain a set of smart playlists is what makes them so great.

    It is also sadly necessary if you want to have any nested logic. As smart playlists are either x AND y AND z or x OR y OR z. You cannot have X AND (Y OR Z) for example without having 2 smart playlists one which is (Y OR Z) and one which is in Playlist 1 AND X.

    I don’t listen to music very much on my iPod, sticking with mostly podcasts and audiobooks. But in order to avoid listening to the same stuff, I have a set up which randomly select 20 songs with a heavy bias towards least played. The chain runs as follows:

    Grab everything marked as music or in the manual playlist of music exceptions (i.e. songs downloaded as podcasts)
    Grab my 1500 least recently played songs from that list
    Grab the 300 random songs from that list
    Grab the 100 least played songs in that list
    Grab 20 songs randomly from that list.

    And then I created a playlist folder and hid all of the playlists except the last one in it.

  • any suggestions for creating “random album” smart playlists? all the tools seem focussed on songs not albums. i would like to create some genre based random album playlists.

  • OK, now that I know about smart playlists, and have Breakaway Dynamic range Compressor, iTunes just about replaces Ots Labs’ OtsAV radio broadcast system as my ideal player… The one thing I miss now is 20/20 Artists/Title separation. OtsAV can be set not to play a track by the same artist, or with the same name, within 20 tracks of the current one. Or am I missing something? can iTunes do this too?.. On my iPad?

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