Why I Stopped Rating Songs in iTunes

I remember the first time I downloaded an mp3. I was obsessed with Brainiac, an indie punk band cut down in its prime by the death of its frontman and lead singer, and was hunting around pre-Napster peer-to-peer file sharing programs for a music fan's holy grail: rarities and b-sides. Sure enough, somebody had a rip of their first album, including Velveteen Freak Scene, a vinyl-only bonus track that I'd never heard. Thirty minutes later, the 3 megabyte file was mine. Not only had I unearthed a hidden gem, I'd stumbled upon what would become my go-to method for seeking out new music. In the subsequent years, I followed a predictable path: hard drive space and bandwidth increased, and eventually I was downloading entire albums in less time than it took to download that single first song. My collection grew larger and faster with each passing month, until I arrived at a point where I was acquiring songs faster than I could listen to them. I went from listening to music to skimming it, searching for a hook or a lyric that would merit a second play. A lot of stuff never made it to that second play, or, worse, ended up forgotten and lost in the soup of my digital file system. Despite my gut feeling that this was not the best way to go about finding or developing relationships with new music, I found myself unable or unwilling to stop.

So I turned, as I so often do, to organizing. iTunes has over a dozen sorting fields that allow you to assign values for things like release dates, genres, performing artists, and much more. It was (and is) an organizer's paradise. I made smart playlists that would auto-populate with recently added music, albums I had never listened to, albums I had only listened to once… But the field I was most obsessed with was the ratings category. I had long ignored the rate-this-song feature in digital music players, but suddenly, with a growing library and no way of tracking what I liked best, it promised a path back to meaningful relationships with my collection.

I spent an inordinate amount of time devising my ratings hierarchy, ultimately settling on a system that assigned a different emotional reaction to each star. Timeless, perfect songs — those worthy of my wedding (or funeral) — were five stars, while any song that was good enough to make it on to a mix for a friend was four, or maybe three stars. Two or one star ratings were for songs I kept for nostalgic or completist reasons, but could have deleted it without ever really noticing.

I stuck to this system religiously for a few years, teaching the machine my favourites, slowly shrinking my unrated music while populating a playlist of everything tagged 4 stars or higher. A couple of friends began doing this around the same time, and whenever we hung out we played each other our most recent top-rated songs. We never knew the name of these songs, or much about the artist behind them, but it was a step in the right direction.

But, as with many of my over-zealous organization projects, the end product of a perfectly categorized system somehow became more important than the desired result: a closer relationship with the music. Sometimes I would listen to a song with my thumb hovering over the blank stars on my iPhone, unsure what to rate it, eventually assigning a value that felt close, but ultimately inaccurate and unsatisfying. My playlist of top-rated music produced a jangled mix that would bounce from Mozart to Polvo to Boards of Canada, jarring progressions that didn't make listening to my favourite music very enjoyable. The only solution seemed to be more organization: create playlists that collected the top rated songs of certain genres, or certain decades, and hope for better results.

Fortunately, I got a hold of myself before I went down that road. Einstein's quote about not solving problems with the same thinking that got you into them never seemed more appropriate. The system wasn't working. Not just the rating system, but systemization as an overall approach. I was trying to categorize every emotional reaction, every possible mood, every intangible feeling, with meta-data. The process didn't help me feel any closer to the music, and worse, it grafted a bureaucracy on to a creative art that was supposed to be inspirational and free.

So I finally quit. I highlighted my entire music collection, took a deep breath, and unrated every song with a click. Literally years of "work" erased in a split second. I resolved to download less music, listen more closely to the songs I did have, and quit fiddling with the "Get Info" pane in iTunes. I still keep album art up-to-date and tag artists, albums and years for quick retrieval, but I let my heart do the rating.

It was my first step in allowing intangible instinct to triumph over a mechanical system. A small step, but it felt huge.

Current favourite? A 2006 song called Always Something Better, by Trentmøller. I'd tell you how many times I've listened to it, but I've hidden the play count value in iTunes, too. Let's just say it's a lot.