Chapter 4. iTunes Basics

If you read Chapter 1 to find a speedy way to get your iPod set up and ready to play, you’ve already dipped a toe into the iTunes waters. But as you may have guessed, beneath its pretty surface, iTunes is a deep well of media-management wonders.

Even if you haven’t bought any music from the iTunes Store, you can use the program to import music from your CD collection. Once you check everything into your iTunes library, the program makes it easy to browse and search through all your treasures—and automatically mix your music. You can add personal ratings, lyrics, and artwork to your song files, too.

Yes, iTunes is a powerful program. So powerful, in fact, that this chapter focuses on its most basic and useful functions—like what the controls do and how to import music from CDs. To learn more about fine-tuning your library, see Chapter 5 for advanced iTunes features. Chapter 6 tells you how to create customized song playlists, Chapter 7 is all about blowing your bucks at the iTunes Store, and Chapter 8 spotlights the video side of iTunes.

So turn the page to get to know iTunes better.

The iTunes Window: An Introduction

iTunes is your iPod’s best friend. You can do just about everything with your digital files here—convert songs on a CD into iPod-ready tunes, buy music, listen to Internet radio stations, watch video, and more.

Here’s a quick tour of the main iTunes window and what all the buttons, controls, and sliders do.

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The gray-tinted Source panel on the left side of iTunes displays all the audio and video files you can play at the moment. Click any item in the panel to display its contents in the main window (number 6 above), like so:

  1. Click any icon in the Library group to see what’s in your various media libraries. As you add music, movies, and other stuff to iTunes, click the appropriate icon to find what you’re looking for—a song, a TV show, and so on. Programs you buy for the iPod Touch land here under Apps. Want to change what iTunes lists? Press Ctrl+comma (⌘-comma) to call up iTunes’ Preferences menu, and then click the General tab. In the “Sources:” area (“Show:”), turn on (or off) the checkboxes for, say, Ringtones or iTunes U.

  2. In the Store area, click the shopping-bag icon to shop for new stuff in the iTunes Store, or click the Purchased icon to see things you already bought. Click the Ping icon (Ping Your Way to New Music) to visit iTunes’ musical social-networking world and see what your pals are buying. The Downloads icon shows items you’re downloading from the Store, or files ready for you to snag.

  3. If you have a music CD in your computer’s drive, it shows up in the Devices area, as will a connected iPod. Click the gray Eject icon next to the device name to safely pop out a disc or disconnect an iPod.

  4. In the Shared area, browse the media libraries of other iTunes fans on your network. You can stream music if you see a stacked musical note icon, or copy music and videos between machines if you have the Home Sharing feature turned on (Share Your iTunes Music and Videos).

  5. iTunes keeps all your custom song lists—whether the iTunes Genius automatically generated them or you lovingly handcrafted them—in the Genius and Playlists sections. The iTunes DJ feature, which quickly whips up party mixes, lives here, too.

  6. When you click a name in the Source list—Music, in this case—iTunes’ main window displays all the items in that category. The three columns that appear above the main song list let you browse your collection by genre, artist, and album. Naturally, this part of the window is called the Column Browser. It’s shown here in the top position, but you can display it on the left side of the iTunes window by choosing View→Column Browser→On Left.

The outer edges of the iTunes window are full of buttons and controls:

  1. Play and pause your current song or video—or jump to the next or previous track. The volume slider adjusts the sound.

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  2. The center of the upper pane shows you what song is playing. To the right of that, you have handy buttons to change views within the main window and a Search box to find songs fast.

  3. The bottom-left corner includes shortcut buttons for (from left to right) making a new playlist, shuffling or repeating your playlists, and displaying album artwork or video stills.

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  4. The lower-right corner of iTunes is where the Genius controls hang out. When you have a song selected, click the whizzy electron–shaped icon to create a Genius playlist (Chapter 6) based on that song. The boxed-arrow icon toggles the Ping sidebar panel on (great if you love Ping and post all the time) and off (if Ping doesn’t appeal to you).

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Change the Look of the iTunes Window

Don’t be misled by the brushed-aluminum look of iTunes: You can push and pull various window parts like saltwater taffy.

  • Adjust how much of the iTunes browser—the horizontal three-pane quick-browse area that opens and closes when you press Ctrl+B (⌘-B)—is displayed by dragging the tiny dot (circled) at the top of the song list window up or down. (You can also put the browser on the left; see The iTunes Window: An Introduction.)

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  • iTunes divides the main song list into columns that you can sort or rearrange. Click a column title (like Name or Album) to sort the list alphabetically. Click the column title again to reverse the sort order. Change the order of the columns themselves by dragging them, as shown above.

  • To adjust a column’s width, drag its right-hand vertical divider line (you may need to grab the line in the column title bar).

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  • To resize all the columns so their contents fit precisely, right-click (Control-click) any column title and choose Auto Size All Columns.

  • To add (or delete) columns, right-click (Control-click) any column title. From the pop-up list of column categories (Bit Rate, Date Added, and so on), choose the column name you want to add or remove. Checkmarks indicate currently visible columns.

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Change the Size of the iTunes Window

Lovely as iTunes is, it takes up a heck of a lot of screen real estate. When you’re working on other things, you can shrink it down. In fact, iTunes can run in small, medium, or large:

  1. Large. This is what you get the first time you open iTunes. (Hate the social networking hard-sell from the Ping Sidebar on the right? Close the panel by clicking the square button in the lower-right corner.)

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  2. Medium. Need something smaller in a flash? Switch back and forth between large and medium by pressing Ctrl+M (Shift-⌘-M) or by choosing View→Switch to Mini Player.

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  3. Small. To really scrunch things down, start with the medium-size window. Then drag the resize handle (the diagonal lines in the lower-right corner) leftward. To expand it, just reverse the process.

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Tired of losing your iTunes mini-player among an array of windows open on your screen? You can make it always visible, so that it sits on top of other open documents, windows, and assorted screen detritus. Open iTunes Preferences (Ctrl+comma [⌘-comma]), click the Advanced tab, and turn on the checkbox next to “Keep Mini Player on top of all other windows.” Now you won’t have to click frantically around the screen trying to find iTunes if you get caught listening to your bubblegum-pop playlist.

Import Specific Songs from Your CDs

In Chapter 1, you learned how iTunes simplifies converting (also called ripping) songs from your compact discs into small, iPod-ready digital files: You basically just pop a CD into your computer’s disc drive and iTunes walks you through the process. If you’re connected to the Internet, iTunes downloads song titles and other album info. A few minutes later, you’ve got copies of those songs in iTunes.

If you want time to think about which songs you want from each CD, no problem. Simply summon the Preferences box (Ctrl+comma [⌘-comma]), click the General tab, and then change the menu next to “When you insert a CD:” to “Show CD.”

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So now, if you don’t want to rip an entire album—who wants anything from Don McLean’s American Pie besides the title track?—you can exclude the songs you don’t want by removing the checkmarks next to their names. Once you pick your songs, in the bottom-right corner of the screen, click the Import CD button.


If you know you want all the songs on that stack of CDs next to your computer, just change the iTunes CD import preferences to “Import CD and Eject” to save yourself some clicking.

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You can Ctrl+click (⌘-click) any box to deselect all the checkboxes at once. To turn them all on again, Ctrl+click (⌘-click) a box next to an unchecked song. This is a great technique when you want only one or two songs in the list; turn off all the checkboxes, and then turn on only those tracks.

As the import process starts, iTunes moves down the list of checked songs, converting each one to a file in your Music→iTunes→iTunes Media→Music folder for Windows 7 or Home→Music→iTunes→iTunes Media→Music on a Mac OS X system. (If you’ve had iTunes for years, then your iTunes Media folder is probably still called iTunes Music, and there’s a separate Music folder inside it.) An orange squiggle next to a song name means that iTunes is currently converting the track. Feel free to switch to other programs, answer email, surf the Web, or do any other work as iTunes rips away.

Once iTunes finishes up, each imported song bears a green checkmark, and the program signals its success with a melodious little flourish. Now you have some brand-new songs in your iTunes music library.


Don’t like all those checkboxes next to the song titles cluttering up your screen? You can turn them off in the Preferences box shown on the opposite page. Press Ctrl+comma [⌘-comma] to get the Preferences box and click the General tab. Then turn off the checkbox next to “Show list checkboxes” (ironic, huh?). If you really want to go for a streamlined look all over, you can also turn off the little icons next to Source list items by turning off the checkbox next to “Show source icons.”

Change Import Settings for Better Audio Quality

iPods can play several digital audio formats: AAC, MP3, WAV, AIFF, and a format called Apple Lossless. Feel free to safely ignore that last sentence, as well as the rest of this page, if you’re happy with the way music sounds on your iPod or through a pair of external speakers.

If you find the audio quality lacking, however, you can change the way iTunes encodes, or converts, songs when it imports them from a CD. iTunes gives you two main options in its Import Settings box (Edit [iTunes for Macs]→ Preferences→General, and then click the Import Settings button). They are:

  • Audio format (use the drop-down menu beside “Import Using”). Some formats tightly compress audio to save space. The trade-off: lost sound quality. Highly compressed formats include AAC (iTunes’ default setting) and MP3. Formats that use little or no compression include WAV and AIFF; they sound better, but they take up more space. Apple Lossless splits the difference: better sound quality than AAC and MP3, but not as hefty as WAV or AIFF.

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  • Bit rate (beside “Setting”). The higher the number of bits listed, the greater the amount of data the file contains (in other words, your files take up more storage space). The advantage? Better sound quality.

To see a song’s format and other technical information, click its title in iTunes, press Ctrl+I (⌘-I), and then click the Summary tab in the Get Info box.

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Four Ways to Browse Your Collection

Instead of just presenting you with boring lists, iTunes gives you four ways to browse your media collection—some of them more visual than others. Click the View button at the top of iTunes to switch among views.

  • List view is the all-text display; you can see a sample of it on The iTunes Window: An Introduction. Press Ctrl+B (⌘-B) to toggle on and off the browser that shows vertical (or horizontal) panes that group your music by genre, artist, and album. Press Ctrl+Alt+3 (Option-⌘-3) to jump back to List view from another view.

  • Album List view shows an album cover in the first column if you have five or more tracks from an album. (Choose View→Always Show Artwork to override the five-track minimum.) Press Ctrl+Alt+4 (Option-⌘-4) to jump to Album List view.

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  • Grid view presents your collection in a nifty array of album covers and other artwork. There’s a lot you can do in Grid view, so flip the page for more. Press Ctrl+Alt+5 (Option-⌘-5) to switch to the Grid.

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  • Cover Flow view. If you really like album art, this view is for you. Ctrl+Alt+6 (Option-⌘-6) is the shortcut. Your collection appears as a stream of album covers. To browse them, press the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard or drag the scroll bar underneath the albums. Click the little Full Screen button by the slider bar to turn your whole screen into Cover Flow, complete with playback controls.

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Get a Bird’s-Eye Look at Your Collection with Grid View

Although it’s been around since iTunes 8, Grid view is still probably the most eye-catching way to see your media library. It’s like laying out all your albums on the living room floor—great for seeing everything you’ve got without the hassle of having to pick it all back up. More picturesque than List view and not quite as moving as Cover Flow, Grid view is the middle road to discovering (or rediscovering) what’s in your iTunes library.

Grid view offers four ways to see your collection: grouped by album, artist, genre, or composer. Click each named tab at the top of the screen to see the music sorted by that category. (If you don’t see the tabs, choose View→Grid View→Show Header.) Here’s how to work the Grid:

  • Hover your mouse over any tile to get a clickable Play icon that lets you start listening to music.

  • Double-click a cover in Albums view to display both the album cover and song titles in List view.

  • If iTunes stacks multiple albums when you sort by artist, genre, or composer, hover your mouse over each tile to rotate through the album covers. If you want to represent the group using a particular album cover or piece of art, then right-click it and choose Set Default Grid Artwork. You can do the opposite for art you don’t want to see: right-click it and choose Clear Default Grid Artwork.

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  • Adjust the size of the covers by dragging the slider at the top of the window.

One thing about Grid view, though: It’s pretty darn depressing unless you have artwork on just about everything in your collection. (If you don’t, and you see far too many generic musical-note icons there, Chapter 5 shows you how to art things up.) And if you hate Grid view, don’t use it—iTunes just defaults to whatever view you were using the last time you quit the program.

Search for Songs in iTunes

You can call up a list of all the songs with a specific word in the title, album name, or artist attribution just by clicking the Source pane’s Music icon (under Library) and typing a few letters into the Search box in iTunes’ upper-right corner. With each letter you type, iTunes shortens the list of songs it displays, showing you only tracks that match what you’ve typed.

For example, typing train brings up a list of everything in your music collection that has the word “train” somewhere in the song’s information—maybe the song’s title (“Mystery Train”), the band name (Wire Train), or the album name (Train A Comin’). Click the other Library icons, like Movies or Audiobooks, to comb those collections for titles that match a search term.

Another way to search for specific items is to use the iTunes browser mentioned earlier in this chapter. If you can’t see the browser pane, press Ctrl+B (⌘-B) to summon it. Depending on how you’ve configured it in View→Column Browser, the browser reveals your music collection grouped by genre, artist, or album. Hit the same keys again (Ctrl+B [⌘-B]) to close the browser.

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Shuffle Your Music in Many Ways

With its ability to randomly pluck and play songs, iTunes’ Shuffle feature has won over a huge number of fans, especially those who don’t want to think about what to listen to as they noodle around the Internet. To start shuffling, click the twisty-arrows icon down on the bottom-left corner of the iTunes window.

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You’re not stuck with a single shuffling method, either. Some days you may feel like mixing up your music song by song, and other days you may be in the mood to change things up by album.

You can control just what you shuffle by choosing Controls→Shuffle and selecting Songs, Albums, or Groupings from the submenu. (As explained in the next chapter, “grouping” is a way to keep certain tracks together in your iTunes library, like separate movements in a piece of classical music that are part of a larger work.)

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Animate Your Songs: iTunes Visualizer

Visualizer is the iTunes term for an onscreen laser-light show that pulses, beats, and dances in perfect sync to your music. The effect is hypnotic and wild, especially when summoned midway through a sluggish day in the office.

Choose View→Visualizer to select from iTunes Visualizer (lots of Disco in Space moments) or iTunes Classic Visualizer (trippy psychedelic patterns-a-go-go, as shown below). Mac users running OS X 10.5 or later even get three more colorful themes to choose from: Lathe, Jelly, and Stix.

  1. To summon the scenery, choose View→Show Visualizer. The show begins immediately. To see a tiny onscreen menu of even more controls for Visualizer or Classic Visualizer, press the / key and then the letter of the desired command listed onscreen. It’s a great way to fiddle.

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    The keyboard shortcut for turning the Visualizer on and off is Ctrl+T (⌘-T).

  2. If you find the iTunes window too constraining for all this eye candy, you can play it full screen by going to the Preferences box (Ctrl+comma [⌘-comma]) and clicking the Advanced tab. Put a check in the box next to “Display visualizer full screen.”

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True, you won’t get a lot of work done, but when it comes to stress relief, visuals are a lot cheaper than a hot tub.

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