Tim Bray cites a post by jwz about the criteria one might use in rating one’s iTunes selections. As you can imagine, this highly tangential critical question just fascinated me. Before I read about anybody else deliberating about the question, I conducted lengthy, intricate, silent private debates with myself about how one ought to rate tunes.

Before I present my approach, this is what jwz said:

0 stars: I have not yet rated this song
un-checked: I hate this song and never want to hear it again
1 star: I think I don’t like this song, but I’m not yet sure enough to kill it outright
2 stars: It’s ok. Don’t love it, don’t hate it
3 stars: This song is pretty good (but not great)
4 stars: I love this song!
5 stars: An ass-kicking, incredible, all-time favorite.

Tim doesn’t offer a full criteriology, but describes his five-star selections as “a tune that in some way gives me as much pleasure as music can.”

I can’t imagine that I’m as musically literate as Tim; I come in fourth in my family (I may be able to parlay my advantage in years into a slight lead over Si, but since both Nate and Margaret have serious formal music training, Pippa is the only immediate-family member who isn’t threatening to leave me in the dust, which is OK because her taste is so impeccable that we get along great). But I do know of a lot of music, and have probably spent more hours listening to tunes than some voters have been alive. So my assessment of star ratings reflects a more than nominal degree of rumination and evaluation.

Of course, a five-star system is awfully coarse-grained; it’s hard to grade anyone or anything on a five-point scale, with all the variables involved. Here’s the way I assign stars to my iTunes:

0 stars: There’s a reason for keeping this around, but I don’t want to hear it
un-checked: This is either spoken word or temporarily off my listening list
1 star: This song is pretty unfortunate
2 stars: Baseline: good enough to enjoy, but not outstanding
3 stars: Noteworthy in some way; better than most of my baseline choices
4 stars: A favorite of mine, but my taste may be idiosyncratic here
5 stars: Everyone should like, and if you don’t, I’m comfortable thinking that it’s a peculiarity of your taste more than of mine

Then I introduce some modifiers. For instance, if I listened only on the basis of unmodified stars, I would end up hearing an overwhelming preponderance of performances by men (if for no other reason than that I’m more familiar with more music performed by men, and have spent more time appreciating music performed by men) — so I tend to introduce a correction to ratings of performances by women (a star to a half-star, so that my baseline for women’s performances comes in at three stars, and my standard for “my favorites” stretches somewhat, and the “everyone should like it” category includes a didactic element).

At this point, my iTunes are only partially categorized; I’ll post the breakdown when I make more progress. Of course, I may need to change my ratings if someone convinces me that my criteria need refactoring.

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