Music Collection Software Organizing and playing of mp3 digital songs – Song Director

Organizing a collection of digital music files – Song Director

Here is a good article on discussing the issues with organizing large amounts of digital music collections. This is what Song Director Software can help you with.


Sally Jo Cunningham , Matt Jones, Steve Jones
Department of Computer Science
University of Waikato
Hamilton, New Zealand
Current research on music information retrieval and music
digital libraries focuses on providing access to huge,
public music collections. In this paper we consider a
different, but related, problem: supporting an individual
in maintaining and using a personal music collection. We
analyze organization and access techniques used to manage
personal music collections (primarily CDs and MP3 files),
and from these behaviors, to suggest user behaviors that
should be supported in a personal music digital library
(that is, a digital library of an individual’s personal music

The music retrieval/digital libraries literature has focused
on the problems of supporting large scale, public digital
libraries, nearly to the exclusion of considering how
individuals might organize and access personal collections.
This is a surprising omission, considering the popularity
of the digital CD and MP3 format; even a child may now
have a sizeable digital music collection, of a size that
requires more in the way of access support than a simple
list of filenames or song titles.
What features or functions should a music digital
library system include, if it is intended to support
individuals in accessing and managing their own music?
We search for clues to answer this question by analyzing
the ways that people currently access and organize their
personal music collections. Insight into everyday musicrelated
activities can have practical implications for design
of a personal music digital library—that is, a collection of
an individual’s music documents, owned, ‘used’, and
organized by that person.
This paper is organized as follows: Section 2 discusses
previous research in eliciting music information seeking
behaviors; Section 3 describes the methodology used in
this paper; Section 4 presents the observed music
organization and usage behaviors, and discusses their
implications for the design of a personal music digital
library; and Section 5 summarizes this work.
At present, there is a dearth of a-priori research on music
information behavior. Much of the existing music
information retrieval and music digital library research has
been technology-driven, and music digital libraries as
reported in the research literature are largely developed as
proof-of-concept demonstrations of the potential of a given
tool or effectiveness of a retrieval algorithm, or are focused
around providing access to an available set of music
documents [8]. Current efforts at studying MIR system
usability focus on user behavior exhibited in specific MIR
systems, for example by examining transaction logs [13].
While usability studies can suggest improvements to
existing software, they are impoverished sources of
knowledge about additional features that might be useful
or other information behaviors that could be supported.
Research examining human perception and cognition of
music is primarily focused on problems in creating
software that can match music elements or extract musical
phrases in such a way as to produce retrieval results
acceptable to human users [2], or on the factors that may
influence a user in creating effective music queries (for
example, in creating a good ‘sung’ query to a query-byhumming
interface [15]).
A previous, large-scale ethnography of music behavior
[4] presents interviews with 41 participants; the focus was
primarily on the emotional relationships that participants
had with their music, and to a lesser extent on the ways
that people use music in their daily lives. These
interviews are ‘raw’ ethnographies—that is, the data is
minimally edited for presentation but is not analyzed to
induce a theory or explanation of the self-reported
behaviors. This study is not of direct use in suggesting
design considerations for a music digital library, but could
be mined for evidence of music-related activities.
There is a small but growing body of work on music
behavior of non-specialists (that is, people who are
interacting with music primarily for personal pleasure
rather than professionally). The goal of this research is
primarily to develop an understanding of how to
effectively support access to public collections. In [12], the
terminology that participants use to characterize classical
music pieces is analyzed and contrasted with formal
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(bibliographic) descriptors. Music queries posted to a
music-focused Usenet newsgroup [7] and to the
GoogleAnswers ‘ask an expert’ service [1] provide clues as
to the types of music documents that people may be
interested in obtaining from a public music digital library
and the attributes that people can provide to describe their
music information need. The strategies that people
natively employ in searching and browsing for music in
CD stores and public libraries are detailed in [6].
The data gathering techniques employed in this
investigation were ‘personal ethnographies’, interviews and
on-site observations of personal music collections,
observations of music store layout and shopping
behaviors, and focus groups.
The bulk of the data was gathered through a project
assigned to students in a third year university humancomputer
interaction course. The students were directed to
perform a ‘personal ethnography’, in which they examined
their own music collections and created a description of
their collection’s organization, the collection’s contents,
when and under what circumstances they use the
collection, and the ways in which they access the
collection (e.g., listening to songs, loaning music to
friends, reading CD inserts, and so forth). In a personal
ethnography or autoethnography [5], ethnographic
techniques of observation and analysis are applied to one’s
own experiences; the challenge is to view oneself
objectively, to see one’s own worldview as freshly as
possible and to then interpret the identified experiences in
the light of applicable theory.
The students then performed a similar ethnographic
observation of a friend’s collection and interviewed the
friend to clarify the organizational principles that the friend
used in his/her music collection, and to create a
description of how and when that friend uses the music
In total, the students conducted ten personal
ethnographies and ten observations/interviews of another.
The researchers performed an additional six
observations/interviews focused on personal music
collections. We also draw on eight interviews on music
behavior conducted to support an earlier study [6].
Each of the ten students also examined at least one
music store’s layout, and performed participant
observations of shoppers in the stores. In an earlier paper
[6] we argue that as CD stores are a common source of
music for many people, the searching and browsing
strategies observable in these stores can be useful sources
of data on music information behaviors. In this current
study, the music store observations provided a commercial
view of how music can be organized to facilitate access
(although in this case ease of access is confounded with
impetus to purchase), and additional data on how people
navigate a large, public music collection.
Three focus groups (one of six individuals, two with
three participants) were also organized by three of the
students, to solicit experiences with current music
organization/playing systems such as MP3 players, and to
brainstorm ideas on the functions and features that an ideal
music system would include.
Approximately 120 pages of data were gathered from all
sources. The data was analyzed using a grounded theory
approach [9]. With this technique researchers attempt to
approach the data without prior assumptions, and to
generate theory from the data. Further qualitative studies
or quantitative experiments can then test the validity of the
emergent theory. The aim here is to describe how people
currently organize their music collections, to suggest
features and functions that should be included in a
personal music digital library software system.
The following sub-sections summarize the characteristics of
music collections and the observed ways that participants
organize, search, browse, and use their personal music
4.1. Collections vary in size and media
The collections varied widely in size—from a single CD
owned by an eleven-year old girl (“I don’t get any
allowance at all! I can never ever ever afford anything like
CDs.”) to an estimated seven hundred plus CDs
accumulated over more than a decade. Surprisingly, the
organizational schemes employed were relatively consistent
over a range of sizes; once more than a handful of music
had accumulated (Sections 4.4 & 4.5).
Music collections included a variety of media:
primarily CDs, frequently MP3s (ripped from CDs,
emailed from friends, or downloaded from the Internet),
and older formats such as cassettes, eight track tapes, and
vinyl LPs (with older formats seldom or never accessed;
see Section 4.5).
At present, music is usually legally obtained as an
‘album’—a collection of songs, as released by the artist.
Albums may be burned to CD for use as backups, and
compilation CDs may be created, composed of favorite
songs from different albums. These physical CDs
(purchased or burned) are then physically organized, and the
organization and access of these physical collections is the
focus of much of this paper.
The organization of individual songs is becoming a
more significant activity in personal collections, as the
ready availability (both legally, through online music
stores such as iTunes or Rhapsody, and illegally, through
music sharing services) of single tracks entices music
lovers to obtain only the specific songs in a collection that
they like. The creation of playlists and compilations
[Section 4.6] suggests that even if the album truly does die
[3], users will still wish to manipulate groups of songs as
well as to access individual tunes.
4.2. Collections are distributed
Few participants with music collections of more than a
nominal size (say, more than 20 CDs) keep their entire
collection in one physical spot. Collections are generally
divided into the active items (that is, those that see regular
or occasional use) and the archival items (music that is
seldom or never listened to; for further discussion, see
Section 4.4).
The active set is also frequently divided into several
sub-collections: a small set of very frequently used music,
generally placed on top of the CD player or by the
computer (see Section 4.2); a large set of occasionally
listened to CDs (see Section 4.3) in a CD tower, drawer,
or cabinet, beneath or near the main listening device
(usually a stereo, occasionally a computer); a set of CDs in
a CD wallet, that are played in more than one location and
so need to be easily transportable (“[my] CD wallet … is
usually situated either underneath my Discman, on top of
the stereo or in the car…”); a set of CDs stored at the
workplace or at a university computer lab; and if the home
contains several music playing devices, a set of CDs may
be associated with each (for example, CDs in the family
room, CDs in an individual’s bedroom, and CDs beside
the home computer). A degree of forward planning is
required to ensure that the right CDs are in their correct
locations for listening.
It is clear that this geographic distribution is almost
entirely due to the fact that the CD is a physical object,
and so must be toted from place to place, if for no other
reason than to ‘rip’ it and put the copy on an MP3 player
or hard drive. The participants generally viewed having
subsets of their collection in more than one spot as an
annoyance, generally minor but occasionally major, since
locating a desired CD might involve looking in many,
sometimes widely separated, places.
Storing a collection in a portable music appliance such
as an MP3 player would finesse this problem of
geographic distribution, since the entire collection could
be then be easily transported to wherever the owner wishes
to use it.
4.3. Emergent Structure
A common realization by the students performing the
autoethnographies, and indeed by other participants as
their interviews proceeded, was that even a seemingly
disorganized collection frequently had an implicit structure
that had arisen through use:
Before beginning this project I did not think that my
collection was organized in any specific way. However
after examining it … though not organized in a
traditional way such as alphabetically or by genre.
There is a system, which I have implemented without
really realizing it.
The most frequently observed emergent structure is a
small stack of CDs that are currently receiving a large
amount of use. This music is typically located close to the
playing device, to make it as easy as possible to quickly
select the CDs for playing. The last played CD is usually
placed on top, so that the less played CDs drift to the
bottom of the stack. The size of this set of most active
music is small—sometimes only three or four CDs,
sometimes as many as twenty. Often a limiting factor on
size is that a tall stack is prone to accidentally topple, or
that it looks messy. When the stack becomes too large,
then it is pruned and less frequently played CDs are
returned to the main collection.
This small stack organization may be associated with
the ‘thrashing’ and ‘sickness’ listening cycle. A few
participants reported that a new CD will be thrashed, “i.e.
played over and over, until it eventually looses [sic] its
novelty”—at which point ‘sickness’ sets in, the CD owner
“decides that its [sic] time to listen to something else”,
and the CD is moved further from the top of the current
stack, or even put with the main set of CDs.
4.4. The Main Active Collection
As noted in Section 4.1, the bulk of most collections are
stored near the primary listening device. Where the most
frequently listened to items are in a small stack (Section
4.2) and the never listened to items are in storage (Section
4.4), the remainder—indeed the majority of most
collections—are only occasionally listened to. A variety of
organizations are used for these items:
• by date of purchase, for example with the newest CDs
placed either at the top of a stack or at the end of a
• by release or recording date
• by artist, with the artists arranged alphabetically
• by genre, where the number of genres can be large or
small (“rap and other”)
• by country of origin (e.g., “New Zealand music”)
• from most favorite to least favorite
• in order of recency in which the CDs have been played
A collection is generally organized into relatively few
categories (for example, into very broad genres such as
Jazz and Pop). A secondary organization may be applied
to each of the broad top-level categories (for example,
sorting by artist within genre). The classification scheme
is rarely more than two levels deep, so that a linear search
is generally needed to locate a particular CD within a
category or sub-category. This type of loose ordering is
provides acceptable access support, as most collections are
small enough that CDs can be located relatively quickly.
Unfortunately, the structure of most collections tends to
deteriorate over time. Few people have the patience to
return a CD to its proper spot after it is played, guests
may disturb a collection while browsing it (Section 4.6), a
CD tower may be knocked over and hastily shoved back
into place, and so on. Many participants had abandoned a
former ordering, and were now simply adding in CDs to
the top of a tower as they were purchased (“Once I used to
sort by artist, but not any more. It’s too much of a pain.”).
Given the initial interest that is shown in ordering a
developing collection, it seems likely that software
facilities that will support the organization of music would
be welcomed—if, and this is a big ‘if’, the organizational
metadata can be quickly and easily added with a new piece
of music. If much effort at all is required beyond a couple
of clicks, then it seems likely that the metadata tagging
will be deferred indefinitely and the digital collection will
also subside into disorganization.
4.5. The Archival Collection
Only two of the participants reported that music which had
fallen from favor was discarded or allowed to drift off
(“they usually end up getting misplaced and lost … I
don’t really pay attention to where I put them.”) Typically
if a personal music collection has been accumulated over a
significant period of time, then it is likely to include
items that are rarely, if ever, listened to. These form the
‘archives’ of a collection, stored away in a closet or
otherwise put out of the way. Sometimes these items are
archived because the media is out of date (eight track
tapes, vinyl LPs), and a player is not available
(“approximately seventy vinyl L.P.’s now in permanent
storage due to the lack of a turntable (a.k.a.
Gramophone)”. Other items are simply no longer of
interest to the owner: “music that I have grown out of”.
Why are these items stored, and not discarded?
Sometimes it’s simple inertia on the part of the
collector—an unwillingness to take the time to sort out
the potentially listenable from the completely outgrown.
Sometimes the collecting instinct is too strong to resist:
Interviewer: Why are you keeping all of those LPs in
your closet?
Husband: I haven’t the faintest idea.
Wife: Because he’s a hoarder!
And sometimes the music is kept because of emotional
ties or as a memento: “nothing more than a reminder of
changes in my personal taste as I have grown.”
It appears likely that a digital music collection will also
eventually include music that the owner no longer wishes
to listen to, but is reluctant to delete. An archival facility
is likely to be useful—perhaps semi-automatic, with the
system suggesting candidate songs that have not been
listened to in months or years. A secondary use for this
suggestion function would be to remind users about music
that they had forgotten about, but that they still might
enjoy playing.
4.6. Idiosyncratic Genres: Characterizing Music by
Intended Use
One notable way that participants characterized music was
by intended use—that is, based on the event or occasion at
which they intended to listen to a particular set of music.
Music of this type might be listened to as a set of
complete CDs, or might consist of individual songs
pulled together into a playlist or compilation CD.
Using the term ‘genre’ loosely, the participants
identified a diverse set: programming music (“[techno
music] is great to program to, it keeps you typing, even if
what you type is nonsense”); detention music (a high
school teacher described selecting the music she plays
when sitting with students who are serving an in-school
suspension: “When I’m working on detention I pull out
the Roger Miller tape, the one with the rankest, most
country accent and words, and play it for my hip hop kids,
so they never want to serve detention with me again”);
music to amuse children (“silly songs for the kids, like
‘Please Mr. Custer’, ‘Ahab the Arab’, ‘Transfusion’,
‘They’re coming to take me away, haha’”); driving music
(“Everything by Jethro Tull, and one or two others [CDs]
that rotate”; “[music that will] keep me awake on a late
night drive home from a tiring day on the mountain”);
work music (“”more ambient music, not as loud and
aggressive as some of the other CDs [in the collection]”),
mood altering or matching music (“Browsing through the
collection to select one that suits my mood, either relaxing
if at the end of a difficult day, or something exciting if I
am feeling bored”; “[to] cheer me up”; “I only listen to
him [artist] when I’ve split up with someone”), and so
forth. One of the more fascinating aspects of this study is
the sheer number of idiosyncratic genres that emerge from
the interviews and observations.
Note that the criteria defining the music intended for a
particular use vary—in the above definitions,
programming music includes a well known genre (techno)
and detention music is selected as being the antithesis of
hip hop; the first definition of driving music and detention
music are identified more or less closely with a particular
artist; silly songs for kids have amusing, G-rated lyrics
and a sing-able, simple melody; work music is soft, not
“aggressive”, and is used as background noise rather than
closely attended to, while the second type of driving
music is loud and fast-paced, to keep a sleepy motorist
awake; and mood music is may be dependent on any
number of facets, including personal associations with
events experienced while a particular song happened to be
playing (think, for example, of a couple identifying “our
song” with a romantic mood).
A facility to allow a user to create personal genres and
to easily add metadata to identify music in these genres
would be useful in a music digital library. This would be
particularly useful as new music is added to a collection
with an existing set of user-defined categories. It is easy to
imagine, however, circumstances in which the collection
owner will miss the opportunity to tag a song with its
appropriate genre—for example, if a new genre is being
added to a large existing collection. When defining a new
personal genre, the individual has at hand exemplars of
that genre; locating additional candidates for that genre
could be supported by a facility that searches within the
collection for ‘more songs like these’. A next step is to
clearly identify the musical facets most useful for
characterizing genres—timbre, instrumentation, rhythm,
etc—and to develop interfaces for specifying musical
query-by-example searches. Research into techniques to
automate the creation of personalized playlists (for
example, by automatically retrieving and ordering songs
with features similar to a user-selected ‘seed’ song) shows
promise in this direction (for example, [16])
Music grouped into such a personal genre may be
copied onto one or more compilation CDs. This music
may be played sequentially by track, if the user has a
strong sense how a mood may be developed through a
particular ordering of songs, or the player may be set to
play the songs in random order. Random ordering can add
a sense of variety and novelty to a playlist.
4.7. Collections May Be Shared
While individuals have their personal music collections,
they may also participate in a shared collection with
others—for example, students sharing accommodations
may keep a stack of CDs by the living room stereo, or
families may have developed a shared collection that
everyone can contribute to and play.
A major drawback experienced with shared CD
collections is that they are even more difficult to keep in
an intelligible order than individual music collections. The
emergent ‘current favorites’ stack organization fails when
more than one person is involved; for example, in a family
of seven, the current listening stack by the computer
consists of “the favourite albums of various family
members and [the stack] is in random order as each user
searches through the stack until they find their current
favourite disk and return it to the top of the stack when
finished.” Again, this is a problem tied to the physicality
of CDs; different people could view a set of MP3 files in
different orderings.
Another common form of sharing occurs when guests
are invited to browse a collection to select music to be
played during their visit. The music is then part of the
social occasion, listened to together or collectively
unattended as background to a party. Browsing a friend’s
music collection may provide an opportunity to learn more
about a new type of music, or to re-think aspects of one’s
own tastes. One student, for example, reported that after
examining a friend’s collection he re-organized part of his
own collection according to the distinction his friend made
between New Zealand and international artists.
Not all music lovers are comfortable allowing others to
browse or access their collections. One notable exception
was James, who had the most elaborate and wellmaintained
organization for his extensive set of CDs:
…James is adverse to other people selecting CD’s from
his collection. For this reason he keeps his collection
in his bedroom to “restrict” access to others. On the
odd occasion, for example during a party, that his
collection is interfered with and the logic disrupted,
James will spend time restoring the stand to a state that
is as close as possible to how it was organized before
the disruption occurred.
Perhaps if it were easier to share music and to browse
the collection without running the risk of disturbing its
structure, collectors such as James would be less averse to
exposing their music to others.
Another reason cited for reluctance to allow others to
browse a personal collection is self-consciousness about
one’s musical tastes: “My collection also contains …
CDs I sometimes play but am embarrassed to possess (see:
Chris Isaak).” One participant even organized his CDs in
a set of racks so as to allow him to hide some of his
music: “I can rotate my rack in a way that “shows off” my
best CDs while partially obscuring the average and
embarrassing CDs.” This participant most eloquently
expressed the relationship that a music collection can have
with a person’s image:
… I feel that my character is partially judged on the
contents of my collection, as I myself consider the
contents of a person’s music collection when
evaluating what type of person they are. From that last
point, I can conclude than an important factor of my
music collection [is] that it displays prominently the
better/brighter aspects of my personality (see David
Grey, Coldplay); while partially obscuring the darker
side (see Nine Inch Nails, Deftones).
The ability to customize what others see of one’s
collection, and how it appears, may be a crucial feature to
While allowing others to browse and listen to one’s
music is generally enjoyable, actually loaning a physical
CD is generally avoided: “…I do not lend out CDs, as I
manage to lose and damage them quite well on my own.”
This problem would not exist, of course, if a collection
was entirely held on a computer or music appliance that
supported easy copying to other digital media—but it is
difficult to imagine that such sharing would be legal in the
near future. In the meantime, those who have copied their
CDs are generally willing to loan the copies (although not
the originals). Loaning may be seen as a more significant
act than simply handing over a bit of plastic, as it
involves a sharing of an experience that has been
emotionally or intellectually significant, an opportunity
for strengthening bonds between friends, or a chance to
broaden one’s musical horizons:
[Lending] allows others to enjoy my music, experience
new types of music and allows me to share with others
who have similar tastes. Additionally, it allows me to
introduce lesser-known bands to my friends and allow
[sic] them to enjoy the styles of music that I do.
4 . 8M. etadata and Extra-musical Documents Are
Given the access methods described by participants, the
absolute minimum metadata required to support searching
and browsing in a personal collection appears to be the
artist’s name, CD title, and song title. A simple way to
enter these bibliographic details would greatly enhance
usability of a personal music library; ideally, each piece of
music would have this metadata associated with it and
automatically loaded into the music digital library with
the song or album itself. (for example, using a service
such as Gracenote’s CDDB; w m ).
Earlier studies of music queries on the Google Answers
‘ask an expert’ system and on a music-focused Usenet
Newsgroup suggested that a far richer set of metadata
would be desired to enhance the user’s interaction with a
personal music collection. While this present study did
not directly address the question of what metadata users
would like to have available, the observations and
interviews indicate that some users may desire additional
metadata—for example, one participant wanted the timings
for albums and songs, to allow him to keep disk changes
to a minimum when using a Discman. The precise
metadata desired is highly likely to vary from user to user,
and so as rich a set as possible should be available, with
the user able to select the fields of interest for display. As
an example, consider the spreadsheet developed by one of
the most avid collectors encountered in this study. This
individual entered standard bibliographic details such as
artist and CD title, and also details specific to his
collection such as the year that he acquired each CD.
Alas, even this relatively simple set of details proved too
onerous to keep current, and he fell so far behind in data
entry that the spreadsheet was abandoned.
The most frequently mentioned additional metadata is
the lyrics of songs. Association of lyrics (or ‘the words’)
to songs in a collection is useful in familiarizing oneself
with a new acquisition: “If the CD is new I will
sometimes take the insert out of the case to see if there are
any lyrics printed so that I can sing along with the music.”
Several participants reported using their collection to
aid in musical performances, either amateur or a
professional. For singers, printed lyrics are exceptionally
useful, as it may be difficult to interpret the words as sung
in the recording itself. For instrument players who cannot
read music, the recording may be repeatedly listened to
until it can be played by ear; the facility to easily repeat
difficult bits until the notes are picked out would be
helpful for these users. Musicians who can read music
would of course benefit from having the score available
together with the recording.
Enjoyment of a personal music collection may also be
significantly enhanced by ready access to music-related
documents, giving background or otherwise augmenting
the listening experience. One participant describes a
For [him], music does not begin and end with listening
to the E.P., but continues onto a complete artist
experience, including investigating the band on the
Internet, downloading music videos and investigating
their belief and social systems through thorough
investigation of their official and unofficial websites.
People with such an intense interest in specific artists or
genres are not uncommon; they may participate, for
example, in online ‘interest communities’, as described in
[11]. The ability to link specific songs, or groups of
songs, to the information discovered online would likely
be of great interest to these aficionados. Further, it may be
useful to store documents about artists, albums, genres,
etc. that are not directly linked to any music in the
collection; information searching may be conducted prior
to purchasing a piece of music, or the information gathered
may indicate that a particular potential purchase would not
be likely to be enjoyed by the user.
4.9. Collections are visual and tactile
Earlier work [6] describes the ways that CD cover art can
be useful in searching or browsing a large CD
collection—for example, when searching for a particular
CD its cover can be more quickly recognized than its title,
and the style of the cover art can provide clues as to a
CD’s genre or style. In the personal collection, these cues
are particularly useful in browsing, whether looking
through one’s own music to find something to listen to,
or when examining a friend’s collection to literally ‘see
what’s in it’.
While some participants expressed no interest in the
CDs other than as a container of music (“I don’t really care
how it looks”), the appearance of both individual CDs and
the physical collection as a whole is significant to others.
In a personal collection, the CD covers may indeed be
used as cover ‘art’:
Occasionally CD inserts with effective graphic design
are used as decoration, by being U-Tacked to the wall.
This allows for ease of lyric recall and adds an aesthetic
element to my room.
Another participant enjoyed designing CD labels for
compilation CDs that he created, as that allowed him to
make the compilations more visually attractive. Still
another sorted, stacked, and positioned his collection to
provide an aesthetically pleasing display in his room. A
collection’s appearance as well as its content may be
significant to ‘image management’ [10], how that person
presents him- or herself to the world; yet another reported
To me, the manor [sic] at which I display my music, is
almost as important as the music itself. This is part of
the reason why I still retain my CD collection (as every
song I have on CD, is also in MP3 format on my
The sheer physicality of a CD may add to the
experience of collecting music. One participant was asked
why he browses through CD stores on a regular basis,
given that he could simply phone the store to find out
whether it has a CD that he is considering purchasing; he
replied, “it’s important to go and press the flesh, so to
speak”. Another reported that after purchasing a new CD
that he will “take it round to friends to show it off and
maybe let them hold the case.” For these people, simply
having an MP3 file does not give the same pleasure or the
same sense of ownership, of having a collection, that the
purchase of a physical CD brings.
It will be a challenge to the designers of music
appliances or digital libraries, and to the music industry,
to bring this sense of joy of possession to the online
purchase of an MP3. One possibility for adding value is
to make available other, related documents with a piece of
music—for example, images, lyrics, or background
information about the artist—and then to support the user
in viewing or otherwise using these images through the
music digital library. Personalization seems to be the key
here, for example by allowing the user to easily make
backgrounds or wallpaper, or to set up icons representing
the piece of music.
4.10. Browsing
Browsing through a personal music collection may be
extremely undirected, essentially a linear search until a
piece of music suddenly strikes the individual as what s/he
wants to hear at that moment: “I usually access this part of
my collection by flicking through (maybe multiple times)
my CD wallet looking at each individual CD trying to
decide what I feel like listening to.” The end of this
activity comes not when a predetermined item or type of
music is located, but when a song unexpectedly attracts
attention and is selected for playing.
Browsing involves scanning the CD faces if the CDs
are stored in a wallet, or scanning the spines if they are
stored in a tower or a stack. Spines are a sparse source of
information, giving only the artist and title—although one
participant reported that color might aid in recognizing a
desired CD. CD faces are not always placed in the wallet
so that the text is right side up, and copied CDs have only
the details that the copier has thought to provide (generally
very little information). Given the variety of features that
may spark interest in listening to a particular piece—title,
artist, genre, rhythm, and mood, to name just a few—a
rich set of browsing categories is indicated.
A personal music digital library system will need to
support mix of tasks different from those of a large, public
music digital library. While significant effort is being
exerted in the music information retrieval research
community in developing query-by-humming interfaces,
this type of access will likely be less frequently used in a
personal collection. Users who interact with a set of music
that they themselves have chosen for inclusion will
necessarily be more familiar with its contents than with a
public collection, and so will be less likely to conduct a
query-by-humming search for that song that they can’t
quite identify, but can’t get out of their heads. Note the
weasel words ‘less likely’; users may be able to identify
the approximate location of a desired song (within a
particular genre, by a given artist, or on a particular CD)
but may not know the track number, title, or other
identifier. In these cases, a query-by-humming interface
may be useful in selecting the correct item from a set of
Commercial services for managing personal collections,
such as Itunes ( h t tp:// s ) already
include a number of the facilities identified in this paper as
desirable in a personal music digital library—for example,
searching and browsing support over a rich set of metadata
(title, artist, date, lyrics, etc.), facilities for creating
playlists, and the ability to customize physical media by
printing CD labels. The insights into personal music
behavior coming out of this study point to areas in which
the currently available facilities might be extended; for
example, that the user might be able to easily add new
metadata (and new, idiosyncratic metadata categories, such
as “the person who gave this to me”, “the parties I’ve
played this at”, and so forth).
Ease of use is paramount. Members of focus groups
were particularly scathing about the difficulties they had
encountered in using existing music management software:
“…perhaps I’m just stupid, but I’m damned if I can make
the thing do what I want. I mean it should be simple
right?” Learning to use, and using, the system should not
interfere with enjoyment of a music collection.
At present there appears to be a tension between design
for small size for portability, and provision of a screen
display large enough to support searching, browsing, and
organization of a collection. One focus group was
particularly emphatic about the need for a larger display
area than currently exists on MP3 players, and for a crisp,
clear display. Perhaps the current focus among
manufacturers for designing ever-smaller MP3 players will
lead to missed opportunities (for example, the Ipod Mini
bills itself as “smaller than any cellphone”); small size and
portability in an information appliance should not be the
primary goal in the design of an information appliance,
but should be secondary as derived from user needs and
requirements of function [14]. In this study, participants
expressed a keen desire for many functions that would
require a display of at least the size on a PDA, if not
larger; no one referred to small size as important or
beneficial. Not all portable music appliances need to be
pocket-sized: in the past, some people took along their
“ghetto blasters” to social events; in the future, people
may well bring their personal music servers. Given that
music collections are typically used in multiple locations,
and that people are keen to enjoy a rich interaction with
their collection whether using a PC or an MP3 player, it is
difficult to envision a tiny-screened music appliance
supporting the full set of features of a music digital library
with a high degree of usability. Manufacturers who do
provide small appliances meeting these challenges will be
well placed, differentiating themselves in a rapidly
expanding market.
The ‘Smart Playlist’ function of iTunes incorporates
many of the ordering and selection features encountered in
this study—inclusion by metadata values (such as genre),
ordering by attributes such as newness to the collection,
and so forth. Additional support for playlist maintenance
could include management of the ‘thrashing’ and
‘sickness’ cycle, although it will be a challenging task to
set up an appropriate interface for this feature! Given the
idiosyncratic nature of genres as described by participants,
in creating genre playlists it may be more natural to allow
users to specify a particular song as an example of a genre
and then have a playlist automatically generated based on
audio similarity to the example [16], rather than asking the
user to use genre metadata.
Given that a music digital library as described in this
paper would be, in the words of one participant, ‘a part of
your environment’, its appearance would be important to
its acceptability. A further desirable extension to
commercial personal music management software/systems
would be more significant ability to personalize the
appearance of individual songs and compilations/playlists,
as well as that of the collection as a whole (in a more
fundamental manner than through ‘skins’). At present it is
not uncommon for a music collection to have several
owners/users (for example, within a family or in a student
flat); this suggests that a personal music digital library
should not be strictly a single user system, but should
support multiple users, each able to personalize the
collection to suit their needs. A collection should also be
able to be presented in a form understandable by
others—to allow friends to view the collection, as part of
the image that an individual presents to the world.
We wish to thank the students for their work in gathering
ethnographic data for this study; the participants for their
patience and time; and the members of the New Zealand
Digital Library Research Group, for their collegial support.
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Song Director Software is good for organizing music collections

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