An In-Depth Look At iTunes Genius

by Bakari Chavanu Sep 10, 2008

I've admitted before and I'll admit again, iTunes rekindled my love for music. Or at least it made me start buying music again. Unlike some of you young-bucks out there, I'm from the classic vinal/.45/8-track/mini-cassette/CD generation. Except for CDs, I think my kids wouldn't know what to do with a vinal record or 8-track tape if I gave it to them. If you don't have a clue either, here's a little history of it. 

A few years before iTunes was released I purchased only a handful of CDs. I played basically the same five or six CDs housed in the CD player of the trunk of my car. That got boring really quick. Ripping new CDs didn't help much either. The music quickly got old for me, just like listening to the same old tired playlists on radio stations.

So by 2001 iTunes came along, and then later the iPod. These two digital jukeboxes were like heaven-sent to me, and I'm not even religious. Finally, I could have thousands of songs at my finger tips without the chore of maintaining shelfs and boxes of CDs and cassettes. It didn't take me long to replace my analog music collections with MP3s. 

But sadly, as a photographer and videographer, I still run across DJs and music teachers who play songs from their analog CD collection. I shake my head watching them flip through different CDs to find songs when they could easily use an application like iTunes to create playlists on the fly.  

For me, on the other hand, my two most used iTunes and iPod features are Party Shuffle and smart playlists. I have a 5th generation iPod (with 4,000 songs on it) that stays in my car, and for the most part I use Party Shuffle to play my collection. I use it because most of the time I don't know what I'm in the mood listen to, so Party Shuffle decides for me. On occasion, it delivers up a song that makes me want to listen to the entire album it comes from. Other times, I use Party Shuffle as a way to rate songs five star favorites.  

There are all sorts of theories about how Shuffle works on the iPod, but for me it seems to group music by genre. So if it starts off playing a jazz cut, it seems to keep playing cuts from that same genre and then flows into a new set. It doesn't seem to play just any random song from your list. There's some sort of algorithm to the way Shuffle selects songs. But hey, that might be my experience with it. You have more control over Party Shuffle feature of iTunes, but a random selection of songs is still the main objective. In essence, Party Shuffle the DJ of your iTunes Library.

However it works, Party Shuffle can be an enjoyable way to listen to your music, especially when you have a large collection of it.

But now with iTunes 8, we get what I think is an extended version of Party Shuffle. It's called Genius, which is found right under Party Shuffle on the left side of iTunes source list. Genius delivers up a playlist of similar music based on a selected or currently playing song. So for example, right before I started writing this article, I randomly selected a song from my iTunes library-"Gimme All Your Lovin or I Will Kill You," by Macy Gray. With Genius turned on, I got a list or recommend songs that I could purchase on iTunes Store listed in the Genius side-bar. At first, I thought that is all that Genius did was suggest playlist of additional songs to purchase, like the MiniStore feature in iTunes 7, which is now replaced by Genius.

But I realized that you need to click the Genius button at the button of the pane in order for it deliver up a playlist from your music collection. When I did that, Macy Gray's song was followed by 25 other R&B songs, including cuts by Teddy Pendegrass, Earth Wind & Fire, Prince, Sade, and John Legend.

It's playlist I would never take the time to put together myself, and that's precisely what makes it practical. Call me lazy, but I just don't want to use my time putting together playlists. That's why I use Shuffle and smart playlists to do the work for me. 

How It Works

Basically, the new Genius feature is based on information that you agree to anonymously provided to Apple after you update to iTunes 8. This information is sent to the iTunes Store, according to Apple "it is combined with the anonymously-gathered knowledge from millions of other iTunes users and processed through Apple-developed algorithms." Then it delivers back to you a personalized list of matched songs. So when you add new songs to your library, Genius will sometimes have to be updated (In the iTunes menu, go to Store>Update) before it can deliver a playlist for you.  For example as I was writing this article, I selected a recently purchased song by Moby, titled "Porcelin." Before it could make a playlist, based on the song, I had to update with the information on the iTunes store. It delivered back a list songs from my library that pretty much matched the Electronic genre of the selected song. The list emanating from the Moby cut was a little more varied. I got a few jazz, dance, R&B, and Pop cuts in the list. All the songs seemed to fit pretty well together. The biggest extreme in this case was going from "Porcelin" to "You Gotta Believe" by The Pointer Sisters. Wouldn't have been my match for a playlist, but it's not way off the mark.

You can of course refresh the list to choose different songs, expand the list, and of course save generated lists. If you save the list using the Save button at the top of the list instead of the old method of saving a new playlist, your saved list tagged with the Genius icon and is titled using the name of the song the list is based on. You can of course change the title of the list, but I think it's a nice touch that Genius lists can be saved this way. Finally, you can also create similar lists on-the-go on an iPod classic, touch, and iPhone; that is, after you update the software on these devices. 

Side by side with other iTunes features, genius is not that genius, however. It basically works like a smart playlist. You can basically create similar a dynamic playlists from random selection based a selected genre in a few easy clicks. You can use Party Shuffle (menu: Controls>Shuffle) to get similar results. But Apple knows there are people out there who are less likely to go through the trouble to generate smart playlists. Plus, with Genius the number one objective is finding another way sell more songs. When you select a song, Genius first gives a list of "Top Songs You're Missing" by that selected artists. Notice the phrasing: songs you're missing, as if your collection is incomplete without them. 

Mini Store Revised

Apple also uses Genius in the same way sites like and use iTunes to basically keeps tabs on what you listen to and then recommends songs based on your collection. The recommended songs can be sampled from within Genius instead of having to open up the iTunes Store to play and hear them. That's also a nice touch.  Personally I like being solicited this way because it's one of the few ways (if not the only way) I get to know about songs I've never heard. What Genius lacks that both and provide is the social networking features whereby you can develop a contact list people who share your music interests. Seems like Apple in not into the social networking thing. It wants to make money, not help you make internet friends.

All and all, though, Genius is a welcome addition to iTunes. It keeps the digital jukebox cutting edge, and one of the best ways to grow and enjoy any music collection.


  • Opps, thanks for that. I had intended and make those changes.

    Bakari had this to say on Sep 10, 2008 Posts: 37
  • Not to forget mentioning, “analog CD collection” is not really accurate since ALL CD’s from day 1 were PCM encoded. This is digitizing the audio analog waveform into 16-bits @ 44.1 or 48kHz sampling which is 2x enough for the highest frequency (according to Claude Shannon) which is 20,000 Hz. 16-bits represents a value from 0-65535 discreet levels for each sample. I am sure you knew all this. Just refreshing your thinking cap.

    Good article. So far, I have been playing with the Genius feature today. It is not as good as Pandora would but then Genius only relies on your own music library, I think, and does not take other people’s music choices to create a fast-food playlist on-the-go.

    Whereas, Pandora takes cues from a community of listener’s Thumbs Up or Down to give you a constantly changing playlist.

    The new default visualizer, which I will call Blackhole Warp since Apple did not give it a name, is really awesome and very configurable.

    Genius + Party Shuffle + Blackhole Warp = Welcome to Sweetness! wink

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 10, 2008 Posts: 846
  • According to Steve in keynote, he says that Genius does tap into the music sources of other users. I think that’s the reason for the update. Otherwise, I don’t think Apple would need to collect the data on the contents of your iTunes library. And I’m not saying you’re wrong, but just the theory or selling point that Jobs put out there. And you know how that can be sometimes. A little overstated. Thanks for the feedback.

    Bakari had this to say on Sep 10, 2008 Posts: 37
  • I believe this article over-simplifies the Genius feature. Not only are playlists generated from genres in user and community content, iTunes considers compatible waveforms, matching patterns in rhythm, tempo, and so on. Listen and you’ll agree. And no, I am not taking any prescription medication.

    technicallyhesright had this to say on Feb 19, 2009 Posts: 1
  • Umm.  It’s “vinyl”.

    mpeachey had this to say on Jul 25, 2009 Posts: 1
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