Doing the iTunes shuffle

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People sometimes refer to iTunes as a digital jukebox, but you may not know that it can function almost like a real jukebox (minus the coins). With its Party Shuffle feature, iTunes offers a way to either cue up music in the order you want or listen to music at random. Party Shuffle is a great way to set up music for parties—as its name implies—or even for your workday. Come learn the secrets of this feature.

The basics

iTunes’ Party Shuffle feature is a special type of dynamic playlist. You access it by clicking on the Party Shuffle listing at the top of the Playlists section of iTunes’ Source list (if you don’t see Party Shuffle, open iTunes’ General preferences and select it).

Party Shuffle is iTunes’ equivalent of the iPod’s Shuffle Songs feature, except that you get to see what’s coming next (see “Party Time”). Party Shuffle chooses songs at random from your library, and if you don’t like what it has picked, you can click on the Shuffle button to make iTunes deal you a brand-new hand. If you want to skip a song that’s playing, just click on the Next button; to go back to the previous song, click on the Previous button. If you don’t want to listen to certain songs in the list, simply select and delete them as you would items from any playlist; iTunes will remove them from Party Shuffle, but not from your library, and other songs will pop up at the bottom of the list to replace them. If you want to leave songs in Party Shuffle but skip them, just uncheck the boxes to the left of their names.

When you first click on the Party Shuffle icon, you’ll see a list of tracks. Party Shuffle shows the song that will start off your shuffle, as well as a number of upcoming songs—those it has put in the play queue. By default, it displays the five most recently played Party Shuffle songs. From the Display pop-up menus at the bottom of the screen, you can change the number of upcoming and recently played songs shown, but the latter won’t appear until you start playing music from Party Shuffle. This list lets you see what’s been playing—in case you left your Mac for a while—and you can play a song again by dragging it down to the list of upcoming songs. You can also rate songs you’ve heard recently by control- or right-clicking on a song name, selecting My Rating, and choosing a number of stars.

By default, Party Shuffle selects its contents from your entire music library. But you can narrow down the field: from the Source pop-up menu, select a playlist, and Party Shuffle changes to show only music from this playlist. (Note that you can’t use a shared library, an iPod, or a CD as a source for Party Shuffle.)

Is It really random?

Much has been written about the randomness (or lack thereof) of the iPod’s Shuffle Songs feature, and Party Shuffle probably obeys the same rules. There is, however, a difference between the two: you can influence the way Party Shuffle chooses its songs. First, you can enable the Play Higher Rated Songs More Often option that appears at the bottom of the iTunes window when Party Shuffle is visible (this is useful only if you rate your music, of course). Second, you can choose the degree of randomness for Party Shuffle in iTunes’ Playback preferences. The Smart Shuffle section has a slider that lets you adjust the way Party Shuffle selects music, determining how likely it is that iTunes will play multiple songs in a row by the same artist or from the same album (see “Free to Decide”).

Randomness Settings By default, the slider is in the middle of its range, set to Random. iTunes will select songs truly at random, and you may hear songs by the same artist or from the same album sequentially. If you move the slider toward Less Likely, you’ll have fewer chances of hearing, say, two Bob Dylan songs in a row; move it all the way to the right, and that will probably never happen (unless you select a playlist of Dylan songs as your source). Drag the slider toward More Likely, and the opposite occurs; drag it all the way to the left and Party Shuffle groups your music by album or by artist. You can play with this setting to suit your taste and mood.

Shuffle Settings Another way to influence Party Shuffle is to change the Shuffle setting—also in the Playback preferences—which lets you choose between Songs, Albums, and Groupings. This setting mainly affects playlists for which you’ve enabled the Shuffle function to randomize your music, but it also has some effect on Party Shuffle. The first choice tells iTunes to shuffle individual tracks; the second, entire albums; the third, groupings. However, only the Groupings choice has any real effect on Party Shuffle (see “Grooving to Groupings” below for tips on using this feature).

Skip Setting Finally, you may have tracks that you never want to pop up during a Party Shuffle. To deal with one of those songs, select it, press Command-I, click on the Options tab, and select the Skip When Shuffling option. To avoid multiple tracks, highlight them, press Command-I, and select Yes from the Skip When Shuffling pop-up menu at the bottom of the Info window that appears. Either method tells iTunes to never add those tracks to Party Shuffle (keep in mind that it also exempts the track from the iPod’s Shuffle Songs list).

You’re in charge

While you can let Party Shuffle fill itself randomly, you can also take charge of this special playlist and add only the music you want. If you control- or right-click on any song or group of songs, two useful contextual-menu items appear: Play Next In Party Shuffle and Add To Party Shuffle. Selecting the first option places the selected items at the top of the Party Shuffle list and starts playing the first one, as long as no songs are playing in iTunes; otherwise, it puts them just after the current song. The second option adds the selected songs to the end of the Party Shuffle list. In this manner, you can fill your Party Shuffle from anywhere in iTunes—from your library or from any playlists. Note that adding songs to a Party Shuffle may give you a playlist that doesn’t comply with your Upcoming Songs setting.

Blank Slate If you want to start from scratch—to put together the music for your next party, for example—there’s an easy way to do so. Create a new playlist in iTunes (select New Playlist from the File menu or click on the plus-sign [+] button below the Source list), and name it something easy to remember, such as Empty. Select this playlist as Party Shuffle’s source, and you’ll see that Party Shuffle itself is empty (or it may have a song from the previous Party Shuffle). You can now browse your music library and add songs from the contextual menu, as described previously, or simply drag them onto the Party Shuffle icon.

If you’re in Browse mode (while you’re in the Music library, click on the eye icon at the bottom right of the iTunes window, select Show Browser from the View menu, or press Command-B), you can even drag entire albums, artists, or genres into Party Shuffle. In all of these cases, the new music you add appears at the end of the Party Shuffle list. If you’re in either of iTunes’ album art view modes (click on the middle or right of the three View buttons in the top right corner of the iTunes window), you can also drag an album cover to Party Shuffle. This, too, adds the contents of that album to the end of the list.

Once you’ve added music in this manner, you can drag tracks into the desired order. You can use Party Shuffle to cue up specific songs for parties or for everyday listening, shifting between total chance and total control. To go back to full randomness, select Music as your source again.

Grooving to groupings

iTunes offers a little-used tag called Grouping—found in a track’s Info window just above the equally ignored Composer field—that comes in handy with particular types of music. With the Grouping tag, you can assign a name to multiple tracks, and iTunes and Party Shuffle will treat those tracks as a group and play them in the correct order if you’ve set Shuffle to Groupings.

Groupings are most useful for classical music, in which works often span several tracks, and items such as live concerts and concept albums. Say you have a set of Beethoven’s string quartets. Within that album, you can assign individual names to each work using the Grouping tag. You could select all the tracks of op. 59, no. 1, and then, in the Grouping field, enter the name of the work. If you do this for all your classical works (many classical albums that iTunes sells already have the Grouping field filled in), and set iTunes to shuffle by Groupings, Party Shuffle will play your classical works in random order, but it will group the tracks from each work and play them in the correct order. This lets you set up your own classical radio station for home or office.

[ Kirk McElhearn is the author of several books on the Mac and the iPod, including iPod and iTunes Garage (Prentice Hall, 2004). His blog, Kirkville, features articles about OS X, the iPod, iTunes, and much more. ]

Party Time: With Party Shuffle, you have a personal DJ at your fingertips.Free to Decide: iTunes’ Playback preferences let you choose how random Party Shuffle is.
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