Minimalism is any design or style in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect.

How does minimalism apply to organising a music library? This blog discusses minimalism and music tagging, how adopting too many tag types and allowing too many diverse tag values causes problems longer term.

Most of the time, this blog discusses 'micro changes' to your tagging to solve particular problems. I've discussed multi disc tagging and volume normalisation, for instance, both of which involve adding new tags to your music files. But these changes build up, one by one. Might there be problems with having too many tags in your music collection? What are the different ways in which having too many tags can cause problems?

Too many tag field types

First of all, some terminology. By 'field types' I mean the type of tags utilised in your music collection. Examples of field types are album name, artist name, track number and genre.

The trouble with tag field types are that your music player must support them, or they become useless. You might adopt a particular tag field but it's not certain all music players will support it. The more exotic tag fields such as lyrics for a particular song are not supported everywhere. In certain extreme cases, a lack of support for a particular tag field may stop related tag values from being displayed, for example a lack of support for multiple pieces of album artwork in a file may stop any artwork being displayed.

Using a particular tag field increases the chance that it may be interpreted differently by different music players. You may have previously populated your classical music with composer tags and performer tags as the 'artist' of a given piece. This means you can browse by both performer (e.g. Yo-Yo Ma) or composer (J.S. Bach). However, a new music player may interpret the 'composer' tag as being simply the writer of a piece of music. I remember an album of mine tagged with The Rolling Stones as a composer.

A particularly confusing example occurred with an email correspondee a few months back. It turned out that his music player (the Squeezebox family of products) was seeing albums with the common name Greatest Hits and also tagged with a DISCNUMBER of 1 as being the same album. Thus, all the tracks for these albums were grouped together. By removing the DISCNUMBER tag, the tracks were split again. This was redundant data because the albums in question were all single disc records anyway. Notch another win for minimalism.

Too many tag values

By a 'tag value' I mean the value you assign to a particular tag, e.g. 'Rock' for the genre of a song.

The problem with too many tag values are that navigation becomes more difficult. This is inevitable and unavoidable with tags that identify music, you cannot change the name of an album after all. For such tags the solution must be shifted to better ways for your music player to navigate your music.

On the other hand, for classification tags such as genre, you might consider controlling and consolidating the possible tag values.

There's a phrase in software development that springs to mind: byzantine. This refers to a piece of engineering that is overly ornate, complex and possibly laden with short term hacks to get something working. If your tagging structure is like this, containing many different tag fields to cope with different music players, having much hard-researched data to complete those fields, the more likely you'll hit problems later.

Keeping control of your music collection becomes a balancing act between providing enough metadata and structure to make your music collection organised and navigable whilst cutting the fat. The inevitability is that the music players you use frame your possibilities, but when you adopt new technologies, whether they be hardware or software players, you have to be prepared to deal with byzantine tagging.

Thanks to Victor Bezrukov for the image above.
tags: minimalism tagging
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The Music Library Management blog

Dan Gravell

I'm Dan, the founder and programmer of bliss. I write bliss to solve my own problems with my digital music collection.