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  • November 3, 2011

A Music Nerd Needs a Taxonomy

Last year, I set up a modest but awesome home theater system with the help of my boyfriend Matt. I was thrilled because I could finally experience my music collection from my living room and kitchenette. Decorative Illustration I could use a remote to browse by artist or genre via my TV screen. What music nerd wouldn’t want that? However, my excitement gradually waned as I realized just how disorganized my 23,000 song music collection was. Browsing for music was a nightmare. Scrolling through long lists of misspelled, mislabeled, and duplicated artists, albums, and genres was enough to drive one berserk. Ironically, I was beginning to feel like a frustrated user.

To provide some background, some of my music was ripped from CDs and tagged by hand over the years, but always haphazardly and without a plan; some was purchased online through Amazon or eMusic; and some was leftover from the Napster and college swapping days. Because I was accruing music from a broad range of sources, none of the ID3 tags were consistent. They were unpredictable at best and sometimes comical. At one point, I apparently tagged a song as “No Idea, Ask Becca,” because a friend had given me the untagged MP3 years ago.

There was a lot of work to do. I had to create a taxonomy and fit my collection into that system. Taxonomies are well known to us in the user experience field. A taxonomy is a classification system for content. Remember the Dewey Decimal System? Librarians use it to organize media so library patrons can find what they’re looking for. There’s also the Taxonomy of Living Things, which uses the categories Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Genus, Species (also known as King Philip Came Over for Grape Soda, if you were paying attention in Freshman biology class). In order to experience my music in an enjoyable and hassle-free way, I knew that I had to adopt such a classification system.

Fortunately, Matt gave me a tutorial on how to clean up my music, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. The process was rewarding, but arduous, and not without its frustrations. I couldn’t help but think of some of the parallels I encountered with client projects I’ve worked on in the past. That said, here was my process.

Archive Old Music

There’s a special place in my heart for Barbie Girl by Aqua (mp3 acquired circa 1999 via Napster). But I really have no desire to hear it again, so it went into the archive, along with thousands of other songs. Immediately, my collection went from about 23,000 songs to 12,000 songs.

Parting with old music was tough, but I knew it had to be done. I couldn’t help but think of the content inventory and audit process, where existing website content is logged and evaluated for its effectiveness and usefulness. Key questions to ask are: Is this content serving visitors’ needs? Is it serving an important business goal? If not, the content needs to go.

Establish a Classification System

We browse music by artist, album, or genre. I prefer artist and genre, while Matt prefers to browse by album, especially with the ability to view cover art. So we designed the classification system based on those needs. We rarely browse by other categories. For instance, browsing songs by year isn’t a use case that applies to us, so there was no need to use the year category. We also retained the categories’ track title and track number for obvious reasons, and we maintained cover art, since cover art gives a face to the music.

I’ve learned that the fewer the tags, the simpler the classification system, and the better the experience. The categories we now use are:

  • Genre
  • Artist
  • Album
  • Track Title
  • Track Number
  • Cover Art
Genre tags

Genre tags were a challenge for me. Is Portishead trip-hop or electronica? Is Boards of Canada ambient, downtempo, or something else? (I can never keep most of this straight.) It was easy to get hung up on the details. For that reason, we also kept it simple. Everything that fell under the electronica umbrella was tagged simply as electronica.

Here is our full list of genre tags.

  • Avantgarde
  • Latin
  • Eastern
  • African
  • Afrobeat
  • Jazz
  • Funky Jazz
  • Funk
  • Surf
  • Reggae
  • Blues
  • Bluegrass/Acoustic
  • R&B/Soul
  • Hip-Hop
  • Rock/Pop
  • Punk
  • Metal
  • Electronica
  • Classical
  • Christmas
  • Soundtrack

A few notes about the genres we chose. You may notice some mixed specificity. For instance, Afrobeat theoretically falls under African. And African falls under Eastern. But we didn’t combine these into one Eastern tag because that wouldn’t serve our needs. When I’m in the mood to hear afrobeat music (which is often), I’m usually not in the mood for the traditional African stuff. Eastern music includes a modest range of artists from Marcel Khalife to Ravi Shankar, which is very different from African music. Also, there is no Western tag, since we don’t think of our non-Eastern music in that way. The purist taxonomist would probably wag a finger at our system, but it works well for our needs, and that’s what matters.

When designing a taxonomy or sitemap or any other element of information architecture, always consider your users. How do they use and interpret content? How do they look for content? What will serve their needs?

Clean Up the Remaining Tags

This was my least favorite part of the process. I reviewed each album to ensure that all labels are grammatically correct and consistent. Every song, album, artist, and genre is displayed in title case. There are automated services out there for this task, but from what we hear, they’re not always reliable. The best way to remove and revise tags is to do it yourself with the robust capabilities of MP3 Tag. (If you’ve found a better tool, please don’t be shy. Let me know in the comments.)

We wanted our collection to look clean and polished so it would complement the full experience. More on that later.

Test, Test, Test

Last but not least, we conducted some quality assurance to detect rogue tags, misspellings, and stowaway songs that should have been archived.

This entire process took me several months and many hours. You might be thinking: Why bother going to all this trouble, when all I care about is just listening to the music? That’s certainly a valid question. I think the answer lies in how you consume your music and what experience you’re striving for. I use iTunes on almost a daily basis, both at work and at home in my office. It’s a great piece of software, but it certainly has its drawbacks when it comes to tagging music. And browsing through iTunes is much different than browsing through Front Row or another home theater interface, where the lack of organization is glaringly apparent. But if you’re happy with what you have, then stick with it. If you’re moving to the cloud and listening to Rdio or Spotify these days, then perhaps the time investment won’t be worth your while.

In my case, we have a wonderfully crafted home theater in our living room. We listen to music through XBMC, which has a nice interface for browsing our collection. A haphazardly tagged and disorganized music collection would detract from the hard work we (well, Matt) have otherwise put into our home theater. Like any website, if the content is messy and difficult to browse or find, the rest of the experience won’t make up for it.

I’ve found that the time and dedication has paid for itself. I’ve always loved music, but I didn’t always love my messy and neglected collection. Now that I’ve archived old music and kept the stuff I love, I enjoy listening to every song. Now that the categories and tags are in place, browsing my collection is enjoyable, and I can actually find what I’m looking for.

How have you organized your music? Or, from a broader perspective, how have you applied principles of good web design to making your personal life better? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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