Understanding iTunes’ sorting tags

Kirk McElhearn
1 November, 2010
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iTunes lets you apply and edit information about your content; this metadata is called “tags”. Tags include the name of an item, its creator (or artist), an album name, a track number, and more. But there are some iTunes tags that can be a bit confusing: the Sorting tags. Here’s a look at what these tags are for and how you can use them to your advantage.

Sorting authors

Let’s start with a simple case: you have a bunch of books in your iTunes library, each of which is tagged with its author’s name. Those books are listed in alphabetical order, but the wrong way, like this:

  1. Henry David Thoreau
  2. Henry James
  3. Herman Melville
  4. Mark Twain
  5. Ralph Waldo Emerson
  6. Walt Whitman

Since iTunes sorts by default based on the beginning of the “artist” name – the author of a book is stored in the Artist field, alas – these books are sorted by first name, then last name. To change this, select a book, press Command-I, then click on the Sorting tab. You’ll see two columns: on the left are the current tags; on the right are the sort tags. You’ll see that some of them are filled in, but in grey: this means that iTunes is sorting using what’s in the left-hand column.

Here’s the Sorting tab for a book in my iTunes library. I’ve changed the Sort Artist field so my books sort by the authors’ last names.

Changing the Sort Artist field – from Herman Melville to Melville, Herman – will tell iTunes to sort the book by the last name. While it will still display in iTunes as being written by Herman Melville, it will be sorted by “M” rather than by “H”.

Sorting by main artists

Sometimes you may have recordings that feature multiple artists, but you don’t want to have too many artist listings in your iTunes library. For example, if you want The Basement Tapes, by Bob Dylan & The Band to be listed as Bob Dylan only, select all the tracks of that album, press Command-I, and look at the Multiple Item Information window; click the Sorting tab.

This window displays when you select multiple items.

Here, any change you make applies to all the selected tracks, so enter Bob Dylan in the Sort Artist field. The artist shown in list view will still be Bob Dylan & The Band, but iTunes will sort the album by Bob Dylan; that is, it will be included with any other Dylan albums you have when you look in the Column Browser, and in an album list, it will be sorted together with other Dylan albums, not on its own. Unfortunately, these changes do not carry over to iOS devices.

Another use could be for classical music. If you have an album performed by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, you might want to enter Leonard Bernstein in the Sort Artist field or even Bernstein, Leonard. The same is be true for jazz albums, where you might want to sort by certain artists who appear in collaborative works.

Changing album sort order

Changing the sort order for authors or artists makes a lot of sense, but what about albums? You may, in some cases, want to change the sort order for albums, and you can do so using the Sort Album tag.

For example, what if you want to list your albums by year, but do so in the Column Browser? (You can list albums by year in list view by sorting on the Year column, or by clicking the Album column header until it reads Album By Artist/Year.) Or what if you want all your jazz albums, irrespective of their artists, to display by year, when you select the Jazz genre? To do so, use the Sort Album field and enter the year there. The text you enter in the sort tag fields doesn’t have to be a part of the actual tag; it could be anything. If you enter years, then your albums will sort in that order.

One practical example for this could be if you have a lot of live albums by a band, and want to retain the names of the albums, but still sort by year. With many, many live albums, the Grateful Dead is a good example. The band released 36 volumes of its Dick’s Picks series, each one containing some portion of one or two shows from different dates. If I want to keep the titles of these albums as Dick’s Picks [number], yet have them sort by year, I could just enter the year in the Sort Album field. So for Dick’s Picks, Volume 4, from February 13 and 14, 1970, at the Fillmore East, I’d put 1970 in that field. Once I’ve done that for all my Dick’s Picks albums, they’ll display in chronological order in the Column Browser.

There’s much more you can do with these sort tags, for movies, TV shows and more. With the above tips, you should be able to figure out how they work. Try them out and see the results. They’re a bit confusing at first, but they can be useful if you like to keep your content sorted in a specific order.

How have you used sorting tags in iTunes? Please share your tips in the comments.

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