Comprehensive Music Categorization in iTunes

Dear smart people on the internet, I need help in 1) evaluating my concept for categorizing music and 2) coding an AppleScript or Cocoa app for quickly processing songs in iTunes.

Music is a complex and fickle creature to pigeonhole, and situations and needs for music consumption vary tremendously from individual to individual. Recognizing this, I am in process of developing a categorization system that balances the multi-faceted quality of music and ability to easily find music to suit maximum range of moods and situations. Since iTunes already has the basics covered (artist, album, year, category etc.), the following scheme focuses on the less tangible aspects of music.

So far, I have three main categories for music attributes: “technical,” “psychological” and “individual” with subcategories in each. I am trying to follow ideas from faceted classification, bending the rules as I see fit (if you think I am shooting myself in the foot, let me know when you spot obvious pitfalls – I am not an expert in Information Architecture).

* Technical Attributes
o Tempo
o Beat
o Mode
o Special Instruments
o Vocals
+ Language
+ Theme
* Psychological Attributes
o Complexity
o Brightness
o Intensity
o Affect
o Contemplation
* Individual Associations
o Time
o Place
o Person
o Activity
o Music

Technical attributes stem from the qualities in the music itself, and hopefully have high inter-rater reliability i.e. most people agree on them. These are tempo, beat, mode, special instruments, vocals, language and theme.

Tempo expresses the pace of the song. I have not found an easy-to-use and accurate software to measure the BPMs of my entire collection (without tap counting), so in my scheme tempo can have values extremely slow, very slow, slow, sluggish, medium, uppity, fast, very fast, and extremely fast.

Beat indicates the level of pulsating rhythm in the song, i.e. the “tappability” of the song or how much it makes you mosh your head. Ranges from extremely light to extremely heavy with some shades in between.

Mode, for the lack of a better word, refers to the characteristics of the instruments. So far, I have identified at least the following possibilities: acoustic, acapella, amplified and electronic.

Special Instruments should be rather self-evident. If the song has accordion or sitar, it would be mentioned here.

Vocals can have values male, female, duet, other and none.

Language should be pretty self-evident.

Theme describes the main subject matter of the song, and should come from controlled vocabulary to keep it somewhat searchable. I haven’t made the list of words yet, but it should include love, rebellion, joy, grief, loss, sex, passion etc. This might be pretty difficult for foreign language songs, and some songs without lyrics can still have a theme, I guess (think The Flight of a Bumble Bee).

Psychological attributes may not be as easy as the ones above as they depend on individual perception. These are the subjective qualities in music that make up most of the mood in the music.

Complexity is just that. Is it just a monotone beat or layers upon layers of musical exploration? I am still little hazy on the notation, but it could be as simple as from --- to +++.

Brightness refers to the texture of the music, and ranges from distorted (say, most of Marilyn Manson) --- to clean (e.g. Magic Flute overture) +++.

Intensity is the level of psychic force the music hits you with regardless of the emotion. It does not necessarily depend on any particular aspect of music like loudness or tempo, but is formed by your subjective experience of it. Think Tori Amos, Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U… Or anything, well, intense.

Affect is the type of emotion in the music. Here I have to simplify a lot, and reduce the entire spectrum to one axis from extremely positive (+++) to extremely negative (---).

Contemplation indicates how much self-reflection the song calls for or induces. If the song makes you want to go and meditate, it is on the introspective end of the spectrum while party anthems fall to the extroverted end.

Individual associations are meant to tackle your private musical connotations with a help of your personal controlled vocabulary.

Associated time is a container for all your temporal memories that the music evokes. Does Nirvana remind you of summer 1993 or your senior year? Make a note of it here.

Associated place is for spatial associations. If Weird Al reminds you of Albuquerque, mention it here.

Associated person is the place to put faces to songs. Does Alanis Morrissette’s You Oughta Know remind you of your ex? Did you have a special song with your first puppy love? Stick all your nostalgia in here!

Associated activity refers to the activities you associate with any particular music. Gym, sex, road trip or relaxing... It’s all in here.

Associated music is a way to connect pieces of music to other songs and artists. For me, Lazy Boy’s Underwear Goes Inside the Pants is kinda similar to Baz Luhrman’s Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen), and would be duly noted here.

Once the data is in (more on this later), I should be able to get going in the morning by making a smart playlist that matches “tempo fast,” “affect +++” and “brightness ++.” I should even be able to get mellow music for my Portuguese friends coming over for dinner with “tempo slow” and “language Portuguese.” Or “intensity +++,” “associated activity sex” and “beat heavy” for some good time.

The only feasible place for the above data is the comment field in iTunes. It is not an ideal solution, but should be light years better than what’s available to me now.

Help wanted
Since putting the info in is going to take a lot of time, I am asking for coding help. Since the Song Info interface in iTunes leaves much to hope for, I wonder if it’s possible to ask for the following:

1. All the above categories in an easy-to-use, quick interface
2. Controls to fast forward, pause and rewind as well as skip to next and previous songs
3. A search interface that will make a smart playlist on demand

Or am I just asking for too much?

by kotaja on Nov 20, 04 | 12:13 pm


Have you looked at this app?


by dfbills on Dec 03, 04 | 1:07 am

I do a similar thing using the "grouping" tag. I'm currently about 3/4 of my way categorising my music along the following lines:

electronic / guitars / samples / synths
fast / slow
female vocal / male vocal
happy / sad
harsh / soft
heavh / light (means thick / thin)
pop / abstract
stolen (stuff I downloaded that I haven't bought yet)

Then when that's done, I'll be doing a 2nd pass that adds:
strings / drums / piano / bass
loud / quiet
intense / relaxed

Then I can have VERY smart playlists!



by Jeez on Dec 03, 04 | 3:29 am

I'm perfecting my own system, as well. I'm not doing anything near as complicated as you, though. My system is as follows:

First, I choose between four types of music: hard (mostly metal and industrial), rock (includes alternative), pop, mellow (new age, celtic, ambient).

Then I just use speed (1-3) and mood (1=warm/soothing - 3=angry/scary) to differentiate the songs. The catch is the rating of speed and mood is within the above type (hard, rock, pop, mellow), not absolute, which means that I avoid excessive tagging.

I also have extra tags for noplaylist (stand-up comedy, spoken word, etc.), live, romantic and instrumental.

The beauty of this system it's very straighforward. It enables me to pick all metal ballads, fast pop songs or slow romantic songs. I'm thinking of adding the happy/sad tag as well as suggested by Jeez.

by Jaskarska on Dec 03, 04 | 6:39 pm

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