How to create smart playlists in iTunes

Jerrod H.
By Jerrod H. - Contributing Editor
How to create smart playlists in iTunes

In the last iPod 101 lesson, we learned how to manually create playlists in iTunes. Such playlists definitely have their advantages – they can be the most illogical, eclectic mixes if you so wish… they can be truly personal. However, they have their problems; they can be tedious to create and maintain, and they’re totally static… tastes change.

This is where smart playlists come in. Smart playlists are automatically and dynamically generated based upon certain logical criteria that you specify upon creation of the playlist. A playlist of your highest-rated songs. Songs you haven’t played yet. Piano music between 1825 and 1923. The possibilities are endless. I’ll begin this tutorial by describing several key criteria for smart playlists, and the remainder of the tutorial will consist of several examples of smart playlists that I have created for myself.

How to create smart playlists in iTunes

Popular Smart Playlist Criteria:


    In iTunes, each song in your library can be “Rated” from 1 to 5 stars. This rating can take place either within iTunes itself or on your third-generation iPod. Any ratings assigned on the iPod will be synchronized up to iTunes the next time your iPod is connected to the computer.

    Most people use all 5 stars to indicate how much they “like” a particular song. Because ratings synchronize from the iPod to the computer, however, I choose to reserve the “1-star” rating as a messaging device. If I discover a song for which I need to fix a tag, or for which the quality is horrible (and I’d like to delete it), I tag it with 1 star on my iPod. When I synchronize to iTunes, the song is immediately added to my “Fix or Delete!!” smart playlist (more on this later). I reserve the remainder of the rating levels for their intended purpose.

    Play Counts

    iTunes and the iPod keep a record of how many times a song has been played. This is automatic – it requires no work from the user. The playcount is increased by 1 each time a song finishes.


    The comment tag is versatile with respect to Smart Playlists. Use it for whatever you wish. Use it for sub-genre. Use it for instrument. Use it for conductor. Tag songs as “Noisy,” “Quiet,” or “Relaxing.” Tag them with themes: “Love,” “Children,” or “Death.”

    You can use several categories in the same comment field. For example, tag a song as “Quiet, Love, Piano.” All smart playlists will continue to function properly.

    Soon, I’ll show you one of the ways I use the comment tag.

    “Checked” Status

    Immediately to the left of each song title in your library, there lies a checkbox. If this checkbox is unchecked, iTunes will not play the file unless directly clicked on. Checkbox status can also be used as criteria for Smart Playlists. More on this later.

Create a new Smart Playlist:

To begin getting creative smart playlists, create an empty one. There are several ways of doing this:

  1. Go to File – Create New Smart Playlist or
  2. Press Control-Alt-N (PC) or Option-Command (Apple)-N (Mac)
  3. Hold down shift (PC) or option (Mac). The “+” button for manual playlists will change to a gear symbol for smart playlists (shown below). Click this symbol.


      Christmas Music

      Ok… I admit it. I’m somewhat of a holiday-music nut… but only during the holiday season. I wouldn’t want iTunes to begin playing a Christmas track in July. Smart playlists help me solve this problem in several ways. First, I have “unchecked” all of my Christmas music. Next, I create the following smart playlist:


      This playlist, as you can see, contains all tracks in my library that are of the “Christmas” genre. Because “Match Only Checked Songs” is unselected, the Christmas songs are allowed to show up. You will see that in all of my other smart playlists, this checkbox is selected, effectively disabling Christmas songs for them.

      Classical – Baroque

      I’m also a classical music nut. So much so, that I thought it would be neat to have my music arranged by classical period. Therefore, I tagged my classical music in the “Comment” field with data such as:

      …and so on.

      Now, I can create a smart playlist such as the following:


      …which includes both early and late baroque music. I have similar smart playlists created for all of the classical sub-genres. Neat!

      Fix or Delete!!

      This smart playlist takes advantage of the iTunes<>iPod ratings synchronization that I discussed above.

      Any song that is tagged with 1 star gets added to this playlist automatically so that I can easily find it and fix its tag or delete it.


      Forgotten Favorites

      Now we’re getting slightly more advanced. This playlist contains 25 songs that are my least-played favorites (5-star songs). The criterion simply specifies the domain: 5-star songs. The “Limit to” field selects those which have been least recently played. Simple!



    Criteria can be added using the “+” symbol. Make a list of all of your “Quiet” pieces over 10 minutes in length. Exclude genres or albums from your smart playlist by adding “Genre” “is not” “xxxxx.” Multi-criteria smart playlists get very interesting, and quite fun to set up.

    Apple does not yet support Boolean operators (AND, OR, etc) for added criteria. Currently, all added criteria are treated as if they were preceded by a Boolean AND.

    “Live Updating,” when checked, allows iTunes to constantly add to or remove from your Smart Playlist as songs are added or removed from your Library. If you want to “freeze” your Smart Playlists in time, unselect this. For example, you could create a new “Rated Highest” smart playlist every 6 months and compare.

    Follow the general strategy of these examples, but have a good time with the flexibility at your fingertips. Yes, logic can be creative! Have fun experimenting with your own custom smart playlists!

    If you would like more smart playlist ideas, visit

    Jerrod H. is a Forum Administrator and Contributing Editor for iLounge.

By Jerrod H. Contributing Editor
Jerrod was a contributing editor at iLounge. He mostly wrote articles about iTunes and iPod accessories. He was known for his in-depth knowledge of both topics and was often able to provide readers with unique insights into the world of Apple products.