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How To Clean Up Your iTunes Library

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iTunes has become the central powerhouse for organizing music, movies, television shows, podcasts, audio books, and iOS apps on your Mac, and knowing your way around it will save you lots of time. Unless you take deliberate steps to keep it neat and organized, chances are your music library is a mess. Even if there are only a few things here or there that could benefit from some upkeep, I want to show you a few things that will make performing that upkeep that much easier.

Watch the video for a quick overview of the methods outlined in the article.

Getting A Grip on the Essentials

Before we get started on actually cleaning up that mess in iTunes, let's discuss a few things. An understanding of the concepts below is critical to making sure that 1) your library doesn't behave unexpectedly or reorganize itself automatically, and 2) that you have the know-how to create a customized organization plan in the future, if your library happens to call for it.


Metadata is essentially a portion of information that is attached to a file (beyond the file name) that determines how that file is treated by its file system. In our case, the metadata of our music files will dictate the way they're organized into folders in Finder (more on that shortly) as well as how they're displayed for us within iTunes.

In iTunes, we can access the metadata by right clicking on a track, and selecting "Get Info."

Cleaning up your iTunes library will mostly consist of editing metadata. While there is a great deal of information that iTunes can organize for you, artist, album, and track title are typically the bare minimum required to have a clean and orderly library.

File Structure

When I refer to "file structure" in the context of this post, what I mean is the way in which the actual audio files are stored in the OS X file system.

Change the iTunes home folder in the Advanced tab of the Preferences menu.

iTunes references a home folder for your library, which can be changed in the Preferences menu. The way your changes in iTunes are reflected in this file system can also be changed in the same menu. Since our goal is a clean library, you'll want to ensure that both of the options below the home folder setting are checked:

  • Keep iTunes Media folder organized: The alternative to this option is to have all of your music files in one big folder (shudder) or, even worse, scattered across your hard drive ("Oh no!"). Ticking this option will make sure that once you've put all that work into organizing your tracks in iTunes, the files themselves will be neatly organized into artist and album folders with congruent filenames indicating title and track number.
  • Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library: I'm not sure why you'd ever want this self-explanatory option un-ticked, but in case it is, make sure you tick it. This will make sure that any file you import into iTunes has it's own copy within the iTunes folder, which means that you can safely delete the original copies without fear that you're breaking that track in iTunes.

Cleaning up your iTunes library can be both tedious and satisfying, but it all means nothing if the files themselves are sloppily organized.

Giving Your Library A Manual Once-Over

A majority of this tutorial will focus on cleaning up your iTunes library without the use of third-party software (although, I will discuss those later), for two reasons in particular.

First, I generally prefer to lean toward built-in functionality and only resort to external aide when the app in question either can't perform a task at all, or can only do so in an excruciatingly inefficient or unattractive way.

Secondly, the music aficionado in me has a strong emotional connection to music, and just as I might spend hours cleaning and organizing my vinyl records, I don't mind putting in the extra time to organize my digital library manually, as it allows me to be more intimately familiar with my music.

With those notes behind us, let's get started on some basic methods you can use at your leisure to start cleaning up your library.

Step 1: Strip the redundancies

An issue that tends to be at the very core of many a messy library is the matter of pesky duplicates. This can happen for a number of reasons, but quite commonly as a result of copying, migrating, or otherwise manipulating your music library as a whole.

iTunes has a built-in duplicate finder.

The third party apps dedicated to searching your library for duplicates seem to be as abundant as the duplicates themselves, but many users don't realize that iTunes actually has a built-in feature that will do just this.

From the File menu, select "Display Duplicates". This operation is context specific, so you can display dupes within a playlist as well as in your library on the whole.

Tip: Depending on how much you trust the labels on your music tracks, previewing a track before deleting it is a good habit to get into in order to avoid deleting things by accident.

The feature may not be exceptionally powerful (as it only displays tracks with the same name, but if most of your tracks are properly named, it can be a handy tool.

Step 2: Isolate the tracks that need fixing

The first step in changing a track's metadata is finding the track. There are a few methods you can use to isolate the tracks that are missing data.

  • Sorting: One of the quickest methods for finding tracks that you want to edit, sorting refers to clicking the column headers in the song list view in iTunes to change the sorting parameters. For example, sorting the list by Album will collect all of the tracks without Album information at the end of the list. Doing this for each field is an effective way to work through each track's empty fields.
These guys. Click them.
  • Smart Playlists: I'm an advocate for creative uses for Smart Playlists, and this is the perfect opportunity to use them. If you've never used them before, Smart Playlists are lists of songs that are automatically populated based on a set of parameters that you control. In our case, you can create a Smart Playlist by selecting File > New Smart Playlist and then populating it with tracks by using criteria based on your needs. For example, search for tracks with a blank artist field, or for all tracks in the "Rock" genre so that you can edit them to be more specific.
Leave fields empty to search for tracks with missing data.

Step 3: Edit the track information

In the section above, I briefly touched on editing the track information for a single track. The information pane can be accessed via Right Click > Get Info. From there, it's a pretty self explanatory process.

As I mentioned above, having at least the track title, artist, and album is probably the bare minimum necessary to have a clean, sortable music library. However, I prefer each entry to have a track number, genre, and year, and from this screen I can enter that information.

Edit information for multiple tracks at once. Use with caution.

What I haven't yet mentioned is batch editing a large collection of music at a time. Suppose you come across an album with a title that is misspelled, or (as is common in my library) you have a situation where Magical Mystery Tour is by "The Beatles" and Yellow Submarine is by "The beatles". This is mostly a nuisance that will manifest itself in multiple entries on your iPod, but correctable nonetheless.

The window for editing the information of multiple items at once contains most of the same fields as the normal Get Info window, but each field is preceded by a tick-box. Only fields that are ticked will be mass edited, so use this feature cautiously.

Step 4: Add the extras (optional)

For those of us who are exceptionally obsessive about the completeness of our music libraries, iTunes gives us the option to add things like album artwork and lyrics to our tracks.

Add lyrics and album artwork in the corresponding tabs of the Get Info window.

Unfortunately, iTunes is currently unable to populate the lyrics field automatically, so lyrics must be found and copy/pasted via the Internet or a third party source (see below).

However, iTunes will automatically scan its database for any missing album artwork for the albums in your library. To perform the search, select Advanced > Get Album Artwork. Once the scan is complete, any missing artwork can be added by saving it from the Internet (Google Images is your friend) and using the "Add…" button in the track's Get Info window.

Step 5: Repeat and develop good habits

Of course, cleaning up iTunes isn't a one-step process, so the procedure outlined above will likely have to repeated several times until all of your tracks (or movies, TV shows, audiobooks and podcasts) are properly annotated. Once they are, though, make sure that your library doesn't fall back into disrepair by getting into good habits.

  • Any time you import (legally obtained) music into your library (File > Add to library…), delete the original files once iTunes copies them to your home folder.
  • When importing a new album, make sure the metadata contains all of the information you'd like it to, rather than letting unedited tracks pile up.

Wrap Up: Apps to Help

"A well organized library is not only easy to search and browse, it is also a thing of beauty."

Ideally, this tutorial has provided some clarity and made the task of cleaning your music library slightly less daunting. Manually cleaning your iTunes library can certainly be painstaking and tedious, but a well organized library is not only easy to search and browse, it is also a thing of beauty.

Still, no matter how much I tout the positive aspects of organizing your iTunes library by hand, some users will still insist on using third party apps to help them. And because I'd rather you do it here where I can keep an eye on you, I've put together a short collection of apps that you might consider checking out.

  • General Purpose: TuneUp ($29.99) is a powerful application that will help you with several different aspects of the organization process. The much lighter-weight iBatch ($4.99) can streamline the renaming/metadata process.
  • Finding Duplicates: Doug's Dupin gives you powerful granular control over the finding and disposing of track duplicates.
  • Adding Lyrics: Check out Mac.AppStorm's recently reviewed Strophes or the free and celebrated Musixmatch to lookup song lyrics for your tracks.
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